If you are a student who has never experienced anxiety or heightened levels of stress before an exam, you are very fortunate. For most students, exam anxiety is a normal reaction. It can, however, be a crippling reaction as well. When stress becomes too high and the anxiety to perform well becomes too overwhelming it’s easy to panic or even give up altogether. Fortunately, learning to manage stress and anxiety before any exam is a skill, and while it may take time to develop, it can be done.
The first key to managing exam anxiety is acknowledging why people experience stress. Stress is the body’s way of recognizing a challenge and preparing itself to meet that challenge. At healthy levels, stress can focus and motivate you to excel during an exam. This type of stress – the type that aids in success – is referred to as eustress. On the other hand, when stress becomes detrimental to your performance, you experience a state of distress. The question relevant to performance is: how is eustress managed so it does not create distress? The answer to this question comes down to perspective.
Exams are an inevitable part of the life of a student, and while the event itself may be out of the student’s control, the perception of the event can be controlled. An exam can be referred to as an external stressor because the event itself is beyond your control, yet the appraisal of that external stressor is entirely in your control. There are two primary ways to appraise an external stressor. A positive appraisal means the body has no reason to produce a stress response. Things that we do daily like eat breakfast, drive or ride in a car, or socialise with people are all external stressors. For most people, we positively appraise these events and therefore they do not cause stress. Every event has the potential to cause stress, but it is our perception of the event that makes it stressful or not.
Other events, like exams, are not always appraised as a positive event but rather as a challenge. Viewing an exam as a challenge is neither a good nor bad thing, but becomes one of the two depending on whether you believe you have sufficient resources to meet that challenge. Students who find exams easy or feel well prepared might never experience any level of exam anxiety because they have the sufficient means to cope with that stressor. On the other hand, students who want to achieve high marks, have heightened expectations, external pressure to succeed, feel less than 100 percent prepared, or any other reason under the sun, may feel they are insufficiently equipped to cope with the stressor.
When you feel inadequate or incapable of performing up to the standard of the exam, then the exam becomes a threat and the level of stress you are likely to experience will lead to a state of distress. To avoid feeling distressed it is important to be equipped with tools that will help meet the level of the challenge. In terms of exams, you can use tools to manage stress directly by applying certain techniques to reduce the physiological symptoms of anxiety. For direct anxiety management, deep breathing, positive self-talk, and progressive muscle relaxation can assist in bringing the body’s heightened physiological and psychological state back to healthy levels.
Exam stress can also be managed indirectly by maintaining a healthy physiological and psychological state through proper exam preparation. Having good studying habits, doing practice exams, finding study strategies that work for you, getting a good night sleep, and eating a nutritious meal are all tools that will bring you into the exam feeling capable and confident.
There are many other tips and strategies to reducing exam anxiety and improving performance, but it’s important to remember one exam does not determine who you are or how far you’ll go in life. In the moment, a bad exam may feel like the end of the world. In the greater scheme of life, everything is about perspective, so stay positive and be confident.
Keep looking out for weekly tips on how to cope with your exams and the end of the school year.