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Thursday, 14 November 2013

Demystifying exam anxiety

[The following article by me appeared in the November 14. 2013 issue of Deccan Herald]

Most students feel anxious about upcoming exams. They loose confidence, feel incapable, get headaches, feel isolated, and scared of what it holds for them. Several worries weigh them down. It would be useful to demystify exam-related anxiety; break it down into its components so that students understand what they are going through, and tackle it head-on.

Everyone experiences some anxiety related to exams. A little bit can be helpful and make you mentally alert for the challenge. However, excessive fear makes it hard to concentrate and makes you struggle to recall things. Exam-related anxiety is a psychological condition in which people experience extreme anticipatory, situational or evaluation anxiety in testing situations. Like everything else, it has a physiological, behavioral, cognitive and emotional component.

Physiological symptoms

The severity of exam-related anxiety can vary from having mere "butterflies" in your stomach to difficulty in concentrating. Some might experience a racing heartbeat, shakiness, a feeling of fear or may simply blank out. Others may feel nauseous, short of breath, or have a full-blown panic attack. Other symptoms include headaches, stomach aches, diarrhea, excessive sweating, light-headedness and dry mouth.

The physiological symptoms can be many, and you may not always be willing to acknowledge that those symptoms have anything to do with your anxiety. 25-40% of all students experience some form of exam-related anxiety, which has a consistently negative relationship with performance. Exam-anxious students perform about 12 percent below their non-anxious peers.

Faulty cognitions

At the root of all anxiety is fear which threatens your security and stability. While fear is designed to warn you of real danger, it’s only sometimes that the danger is indeed real! Inferior performance arises not because of intellectual problems or poor preparation, but because anxiety of testing situations disrupts attention and memory functioning.

Unhelpful thought processes catastrophise potential outcomes, and result in a fear of failure, feelings of inadequacy, self-condemnation, negative self-talk, unrealistic expectations and perfectionist tendencies, seeing the marks as an ultimate goal, instead of merely a stepping stone to a larger goal.

If your conversation with yourself is as follows, you could have a faulty belief system which causes your anxiety. “If I don’t do well in the exams…

…I’ll be a failure.”

…my parents will be disappointed with me.”

…my friends won’t like me; my teachers will think I’m dumb.”

…I’ll let my teachers down.”

…I won’t be good enough. I can’t make a mistake. I always have to do well and be right.”
Parents are often a source of pressure, especially when they place more emphasis on marks than on the effort being made. This results in greater worry, irrelevant thoughts, and a strong fear of failure. Anxiety may also be because you think you may confirm a negative stereotype about your entire social group. Or you may be too concerned about the positive or negative labeling by others.

Exam-related anxiety results in several different emotions, ranging from depression, anger, and hopelessness, lack of confidence, inadequacy, demotivation, fear, and low self-esteem. The low self-esteem makes you equate your worth to the marks you get.

Behavioural manifestations

You get easily distracted; you experience difficulty with comprehending relatively simple instructions, and have trouble organizing or recalling relevant information. You tend to procrastinate and be disorganized about your time and work, and have inadequate study and test-taking skills.

Restructure your thoughts
Restructuring one’s thoughts is the most important component of tackling exam-related anxiety. It is critical to change your attitude and think positively.

Use strategies to personalise your success for yourself and visualise what success looks like for you. Use self-talks to concretise it. Write about it in a journal. Do whatever it takes to make it concrete in your mind.

* Engage in thought-stopping Every time you start going down the spiral of negative thoughts, hold yourself. Snap a rubber-band on your wrist, pinch yourself, or do something that will snap you out of it. As you anticipate the exam, think positively; for example, "I can do well in this exam. I have studied and know my stuff."

* Do not overplay the importance of your marks. They’re not a measure of your worth, nor a guarantor of your future success.

Avoid thinking of yourself in an ‘all or nothing’ way – either as a total success, or as a complete failure. Give yourself positive acknowledgement for what you’ve done, and for doing your best.

* Name your fear, concretise it, and then do not think about it. Instead keep on the task, step by step. Expect some anxiety. It gives you the energy to do your best. Just keep it manageable.

Remember that anxiety can become a ‘habit’. Most people think anxiety is something happening to them rather than something they are creating.  Take responsibility for investing in anxiety-provoking thoughts and reactions, and allowing negative projections to control you. This is not easy but it is doable.

* Remember, failure is always an event, never a person. Your parents may be disappointed with your performance, but they will still love you.

Your friends like you for who you are, not for your marks. And, if they like you only for your marks, they are not friends worth having. Your teachers may think you’re dumb, but that doesn’t make it the reality.

Your marks are your business. If anything, you let yourself down, not anyone else. Making a mistake isn’t a crime. You can make a mistake sometimes. That gives you an opportunity to learn.

Behavioural strategies

* Focus on your study skills. Put in your best effort. Being well prepared helps minimise your rational anxiety. Do not fall into the trap of last minute cramming. Take a step-by-step approach and do not get overwhelmed.

Break-up each major task into smaller goals; acknowledge yourself on achieving each goal. Manage your time – don’t procrastinate; minimise distractions; organise your material so you have everything you need when you need it; make and stick to a schedule; include self-testing; use mind maps and aids to memory; review previous tests and learn from past mistakes.

* Do not neglect your basic biological, emotional, and social needs. Think of yourself as a total person – not just a test taker. Adopt a healthy lifestyle; eat nutritious food, get enough sleep, do enough exercise, get personal downtime, have social interaction, and practice relaxation regularly.

Follow a moderate study pace, and vary your work and take breaks. Once you feel you are adequately prepared, relax. Avoid speaking with peers who express negativity. Organise yourself the night before and get enough sleep otherwise you won’t be able to function optimally.

On exam day

* Eat a healthy meal; take a healthy snack.
* Get to the exam in good time, allowing time for things that need to be done.
* Don’t talk to others before the exam if that increases your anxiety.
* When papers are distributed, calm yourself by taking slow deep breaths.
* Read instructions carefully; budget your time.
* If the exam is more difficult than you anticipated, focus on doing your best. It might be enough to get you through with a reasonable grade. If you go blank, skip the question.
* Focus only on that exam, not on what others are doing or on thinking about past exams or future goals. Don't panic when students start handing in their papers – there’s no reward for finishing first.
* If you’re anxious during the exam, calm yourself. Use relaxation techniques -stretch your arms and legs and relax them a few times. Take slow deep breaths. Do some positive internal self-talk. Remember you’re in control.

When the exam is over, treat yourself. If you don't have other commitments, take the night off.

If you have other exams, postpone a larger break, but a brief break may be just the "pick up" you need.

Also, review what worked, and build on those strategies, no matter how small they may be. They’re building blocks to your success. List what didn’t work well, and don’t follow those methods again. Celebrate that you’re on the road to overcoming your exam-related anxiety.


  1. Greetings Maullika Sharma,
    I enjoyed your article demystifying exam anxiety. The behavioral strategies that you listed are very practical. I also would like to point out that if a person experiences anxiety by non-realistic projections which are experienced as negative, then the person also has the ability to project within the framework of their preparations to have positive associations, since much anxiety is, as you said, non-realistic self perception of achievemnts due to perceptions of expectations. Excellent article

  2. Thank you. Yes, we need to learn to project positive thoughts and images as opposed to the negative. Unfortunately it is always easier for us to focus on the negative, Somehow that comes naturally while we need to train ourselves to focus on the positives

  3. Most students who have exam phobia have had poor learning habits and in my experience with high school students, none of them had been taught time management skills.

  4. Yes, I think developing good study habits and work ethics from the start are important, but equally important is being able to address the anxiety at an emotional level

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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