Managing exam stress

A little exam anxiety can enhance your performance by providing the momentum to succeed. However, many students feel overwhelmed with an anxiety that has no relation to their ability. This nervousness can then negatively affect their revision process, as well as their exam performance. Generally students fall into three groups who each need different strategies to cope with their anxiety:

1) Those who are so relaxed that they do too little preparation. Here the task is to channel tension into a well rehearsed performance by setting short targets with associated rewards and practising past-papers to keep the momentum going before the exam.  

2) Those students who tend to be anxious people. Worry about the exam affects the revision process and heightens their belief in their lack of ability. Here the task is to raise confidence by getting a grasp of the material through successful revision. It may also be helpful to consider techniques for managing your anxiety.

3) Students whose anxiety is specifically linked to assessment. Here the task is to regain confidence by using your imagination to cope with the specific fears you have about exams. It may also be helpful to consider techniques for managing your anxiety.

The following tips give advice about relaxation techniques to manage your anxiety and practical advice for how to prepare

Start learning and practising relaxation in advance of the exam and practice regularly to gain confidence that you can control your anxiety both generally and during an assessment. The following 3 techniques are quick, silent and can stop the panic rising:

The emergency stop

  • As you begin to feel tense say, very loudly, to yourself: ‘STOP’
  • Clench your teeth and jaw, hold for 5 seconds, relax for another 5 seconds
  • Repeat with your eyes and forehead and then neck and shoulders, finish with your hands and arms

The sigh

  • Take 2 or 3 deep breaths, letting them out as slowly as you can
  • Relax and drop your shoulders with a quiet sigh
  • Shut your eyes and picture someone that you love saying something encouraging to you. Stay with that thought for a moment before opening your eyes


  • List the things that stress you out when thinking about exams beginning with the most stressful e.g. ‘I won’t understand the question’ or ‘I will forget to answer a question’.
  • Relax. Take a few slow deep breaths, inhaling for 5 seconds, holding for 5 and exhaling for 5.
  • Now visualise yourself overcoming the least fearful first. Imagine this one until you can think about it with less fear.
  • Move on to the next fearful think and try each one at a time until you can picture yourself doing all (or at least most) of the tasks confidently.

Before the exam:

  • Plan and begin your revision early to allow you time to feel confident about the material and get organised with an effective revision strategy
  • Look after your wellbeing with a healthy diet, moderate exercise and plenty of sleep.
  • Boost your confidence by noticing what it is you can do effectively – both in your studies and in other areas of your life. This can remind you that you are a competent person and you can then transfer some of that competence onto your revision and exam experience.

 In the exam room if you can’t get started, or freeze, try:

  • Shutting your eyes or breathing deeply. What is the colour of your anxiety? With every exhale, breathe out the colour of your anxiety and see it becoming paler and weaker.
  • If you get stuck on a question, leave it. Work out your plan for the next one
  • Take a complete rest for a couple of minutes. Then sit up very straight, breathe deeply and begin to work again
  • Avoid perfectionism – allow yourself to do a competent job and just get on with it

Support with stress from the counselling services

Video on managing stress from the BBC