Managing Study Stress Part 2: How to beat exam anxiety and perform better

25/07/2017 10:00AM


You’ve poured your heart into your course. You’ve studied for days. But you can’t beat that feeling of dread about your exam. Sound familiar? We thought so. While some nerves are a natural part of studying and exams, excessive stress can damage your ability to achieve. That’s why we caught up with a leading performance anxiety psychologist — Dr Margaret Osborne — to talk about how you can manage exam stress to be the best that you can. Here, she shares her tips on how to stay in control and perform under pressure.

Why do we get stressed about exams?

It’s normal to feel a bit anxious about exams because we’re being put to the test and there is a potential for failure — and that can feel a bit scary. And when we perceive danger, it triggers a range of mental, physical and behavioural changes that cause us to feel panicky. When it comes to exams, stress usually starts with negative thoughts such as “what will happen to my life if I fail this exam?”, followed by physical symptoms like sweaty palms and a racing heart, and may eventually lead to students avoiding exams or being so frozen with fear they can’t answer the exam question.

How can we stop these negative thoughts and prevent stress getting out of control?

Everyone experiences a little self-doubt when they’re put under pressure, but constantly ruminating on negative thoughts like “I’m not good enough” or “if I fail my future is stuffed”, is unhealthy because they exacerbate stress symptoms. So, we need to break these thought patterns and re-frame them into constructive ways of thinking. We can do this in a few easy steps.

  1. Acknowledge the situation that’s causing you stress (your exam)
  2. Examine what you’re feeling about this situation right now (e.g. “I’m so scared of failing.” “It’s too hard for me”). Write them all down.
  3. Take a moment and carefully consider a rational response to each thought you’re having based on evidence. For example, your response to fear about failure might be that you’ve passed exams in the past. Write down all your logical responses.
  4. Now reconsider your feelings about the situation. After forming logical responses to your negative thoughts your anxiety levels should be less intense.

Like anything, you may need to do this exercise a couple of times to feel the benefits. The key thing to remember is that you need to challenge negative thoughts when they pop up to prevent them from triggering you into panic mode.

Are some people more prone to experiencing negative thoughts and stress?

Evidence suggests that people who’ve come from difficult backgrounds tend to experience negative thoughts and anxiety more than those who’ve had an easier childhood. This is because people who’ve had a harder time are more ‘primed’ towards threat and their brains have a well-practiced fear response. They’re also more likely to hold negative assumptions about themselves and the world in general because of their tough experiences. All this can add up to make them more prone to anxiety and ruminating on negative thoughts during exams. In addition, people who are perfectionists can struggle more with exam stress because they commonly worry or berate themselves harshly if they don’t achieve the unrealistic standards they often set themselves. However, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’ve come from because we all have the capacity to learn to control negative thoughts and stress symptoms to be able to perform well.

What advice would you give someone experiencing a ‘choke’ moment?

If you turn over your exam paper and the first question spins you into a panic, then you need to do what’s called a ‘body flop’ to break the anxiety circuit and regain control and concentration on the task at hand. First, we need to quieten and settle our brain. To do this, close your eyes and imagine the front of your brain as the parent tucking the noisy, chattering children in the middle of your brain (where your fear detectors are located) under the doona. Picture those noisy thoughts being dampened down and getting sleepy. Then, focus on softening every part of your body, especially in the face, shoulders and neck, before deeply inhaling and exhaling out. When exhaling, focus on releasing those feelings of inner tension as a big sigh. Repeat these steps until you feel you heart rate and tension levels dropping and then give you exam paper another go. And if you get stuck on the same question, move on to one you feel more confident about. You can always come back to it when you’re feeling more settled later.

Do you have any lifestyle and studying tips for making exams easier?

Cut down on caffeine consumption and steer clear of alcohol and recreational drugs because these substances can adversely affect our brains when studying. I’d recommend eating well, exercising and getting good sleep because this will help boost your motivation and concentration levels, which in turn, will help you learn and become confident remembering study material. In addition, creating a study schedule and breaking it down into manageable chunks will help you feel less overwhelmed and allow you to steadily track towards being prepared for your exam. And finally, plan breaks in your study to do things you love because it’s important to give your brain a break.

If you’re interested in finding out about the causes and symptoms of stress check out our previous blog: Managing Study Stress Part 1: The science of stress and what happens to us when we worry about exams.

Dr Margaret Osborne is registered psychologist, postdoctoral research fellow and lecturer at the University of Melbourne who specialises in helping people overcome phobias, public speaking fears and performance anxiety.

If you're struggling with stress or anxiety, then check out This Way Up and Beyond Blue for some more great resources on how to stay in a good headspace.