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Does the very word ‘exam’ make you feel not yourself? Exam stress can happen to the best of us, and there are things that can help.
A study at Liverpool university found that over 16 per cent of students identify as highly test anxious.
What is exam stress?
Just because you manage to act cool, calm, and collected around exams doesn’t mean you actually are. Stress is not about how we appear to others, it’s about how we experience something.
If exams mean negative shifts in the way you think and feel, both emotionally and physically, you might be experiencing exam stress.
What are the symptoms of exam stress?
Stress is not just a mental thing. It’s also a very physical experience to go through.
So while mentally with an exam approaching, you may experience:
Emotionally, you might:
You will also have physical symptoms of exam stress, such as:
Why am I so stressed about exams?
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Sometimes exam stress is quite logical. We just are not a natural fit with a certain subject and struggle with it, so we are stressed if we will manage to pass or not.
Or we have parents who have really high expectations of us, and we are afraid to let them down. Or are at a very competitive boarding school that piles on the stress.
But often, exam stress is not a stand alone stress but related to other things, such as:
Mental health issues that add to exam stress
As well as learning differences, there are several mental health issues that make sitting exams harder. If you feel one of these might be you, getting mental health support could end up meaning exam periods are easier.
Mental health issues that might be contributing include:
When we are depressed it can feel like our head is full of cotton wool and sand and our memory is a giant blank. We can’t remember where we left our keys, let alone the date of a historic battle or how to do an algebra problem.
[Not sure if it’s depression? Take our ‘stressed or depressed’ quiz].
Anxiety puts our mind into hyper gear. Our thoughts can be so busy and racing we can’t bring them to focus on the task at hand, sitting an exam.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ADHD, might mean that when you do focus you can cram more studying into an hour than others do into a day. But the rest of the time your mind is on a million different things.
And you can space out mid exam, or start off answering a question really well but then get bored and write a rushed conclusion that is beneath your ability.
ADHD can mean you constantly deal with a sense of never living up to your potential. This can mean exams are a particular sore spot as they are yet another thing you’ll end up beating yourself up over.
Many people with ADHD also don’t do well being told there are time limits, it causes a sort of anxiety that can lead to not thinking straight. If this sounds like you, consider an ADHD assessment.
The autism spectrum.
If you have autism you might have a brain that over focuses on one subject, but that you struggle to make focus on other subjects. And you might find an exam question others find easy to understand instead confusing, as the way you think might not get the insinuations others easily do.
Plus, you can find stressful situations put you into sensory overload and then you can meltdown. So if some idiot next to you keeps clicking their pen you might get so distracted you simply can’t perform well or get emotional.
Trauma and complex trauma (c-PTSD).
Never do well under stressful situations? Always find yourself in a weird fugue with a beating heart, or totally out to lunch and unable to think? If you lived through a difficult situation or had an ongoing hard experience like abuse as a child you could have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This means that anything challenging can set off your fight, flight, or freeze response.
How do you relieve exam stress?
When it comes to the lead up to exams, you need to be honest with yourself about what helps you personally, not what works for others and your peers. Just because your friend loves cue cards doesn’t mean they will work for you.
- Do you learn best in quiet environments like a library? Or do you actually find you work best in places with ambient noise, like a cafe?
- What way do you take in information best? Is it hearing things said, reading them, or writing them out? Or actually saying them out loud? Experiment.
- Do you work well in a group, or is the truth that study groups put you behind and you do better studying alone?
It’s also important to try to be a little selfish. If you tend not to tell people you need space or time as you feel guilty, or feel you must help others in need even during exam periods, then recognise that you need to prioritise yourself.
It can also be easy to assume loved ones and friends know what we need, but often they are doing their best but simply don’t. So have a proper conversation with those around you and let them know you are stressed about exams and need their support, and what exact ways you would like that support to look like.Your mother might not realise, for example, that endlessly knocking on your door with snacks or asking how things are going might simply stress you out more.
Try proven stress tools
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There are several to choose from here. You can be trendy and do some yoga and mindfulness meditation. You can also try breath work (try the NHS guide to breathing your way out of stress).
But you can also just go for a walk, or journal out your thoughts then rip up the pages after (this means you are less likely to censor yourself and can get more out on the page).
Or you can close the curtains, put your headphones on, and dance it out. Physical exercise is now shown to make us more emotionally resilient to the effects of chronic stress.
What if my parents are putting tons of pressure on me?
Ideally of course you’d let your parents know it’s too much and is backfiring, making your studying go badly.
But if this is not possible, if your parent would just get upset with you, do try to find someone else to talk to at least. Sometimes just letting off steam with a trusted friend or other family member can at least help us feel less alone.
Stop the black and white thinking
When we are dealing with exam stress it’s very easy for our mind to hook into what are called ‘cognitive distortions’. These are things that aren’t true but we convince ourselves are. Assumptions are a cognitive distortion. Black and white thinking is one such distortion.
Notice if you see things in terms of all or nothing. “I have to pass or my life is over”. “I will either do really well or fail”. Life is never black and white, so lower stress by finding the middle ground. You might do well enough, and you might find that in the big picture, this exam was not as important as you thought.
Try a perspective jump.
Being judged on the outcome of exams is hard, and is also in many ways very unrealistic. Our intelligence can manifest in many different ways that exams simply don’t measure, and being good at exams doesn’t even mean we’ll be good at life. Imagine you are eighty years old, looking back at your entire life. Will you even remember this exam? This is not to say you shouldn’t do your best, but try not to attach your entire wellbeing to a one moment.
Wish you had someone to talk to who understood? We provide therapy for teens in central London and online. Or use our sister site to find UK-wide therapists who work with teens now.