Whether at school, college, or university, it is not uncommon for students to feel stressed about exams. Concerns related to exams can cause or exacerbate feelings of anxiety or low mood, feelings of confidence and motivation, and can also impact sleeping or eating habits . Being able to manage and overcome exam stress or anxiety can be done through understanding the causes and contributors of why it occurs and targeting those areas to reduce the stress or anxiety.
Exams and what they mean to each person can cause a lot of pressure in students. The majority of students want to do well, whether it is for their family or school, if they are working towards a university degree or a particular career path, or even simply if they hold high standards for themselves and want to achieve a high grade. Whatever the reasons are, many students feel a pressure to succeed, which more often than not is where the exam stress or anxiety originates.
The term “Exam anxiety” refers to ‘a physical response (e.g., panic, dizziness, high heart rate), accompanied by worrisome thoughts about failure and difficulty recalling information, which results from perceiving an exam as highly threatening’ . As humans, our stress response has evolved to prepare and enable us to deal with threats in our environment. In the modern day, much of the stress we feel comes from an imbalance in the demands that are made on us, and our perceived resources to respond to them. When we feel like we don’t have the resources to tackle potential threats and meet the demands of our environment, we become stressed.
For students, the threat of an exam may be fear of failure, fear of judgement from others, or a potential increase in self-criticism and a decrease in self-worth. Regardless of the subjective threat or concern of each student, we know that such thoughts about the exam and the beliefs about the results are tied to personal beliefs about the self, others, and the future. The interactions between the concerns about the exam and the personal beliefs can exaggerate negative thoughts and lead to thought patterns such as:
Overgeneralisation: “I failed my English exam, so I will fail all of them.”
Fortune telling: “I know I will fail even if I try”
Mind reading: “My parents will think I’m a failure”
Selective abstraction: “I did really badly on one question, so I am bound to fail.”
All or nothing thinking: “If I don’t get the highest grade I have failed”
Catastrophising: “If I fail these exams, my whole life will be a failure” 
Having these negative thoughts can be overwhelming, as they can lead to students feeling as though they are not in control of their performance, and/or not able to focus on anything but potential failure. This can have an affect on cognitions during the exam, described as cognitive interference. This may present as a difficulty concentrating, going ‘blank’ or ‘choking’ during the exam, even if they had spent hours revising and preparing for it. In turn, feelings of panic, fear, or anxiety are likely to increase as the pressure to complete the exam to a high or even good standard increases. Feelings of anxiety often present in the body as an increased heart rate, muscle tension, feeling dizzy, faint, or nauseous. The physiological response is also likely to worsen the feelings of anxiety, particularly when experienced in an exam hall in the presence of other students.
In order to try to avoid or unconsciously protect themselves from the various sources of pressure, stress, and anxiety involved in the process of exams, motivation in students is often negatively impacted. For example, some students may disengage with their education and exams, and while physical avoidance is often not an option in compulsory education, students may show disinterest in participating in their own learning, for example not paying attention in lessons or procrastinating starting revision. Also known as ‘withdrawal of effort’, students may consciously or unconsciously not work as hard towards attaining their grades, in order to separate the potential negative feelings from their self-worth, and instead can account it to their strategic lack of effort.
The British Psychological Society (BPS) recommends a Cognitive Behavioural Intervention in order to tackle and reduce levels of exam anxiety in students. This takes a similar approach to standard Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which focuses on improving the content of and relationship between thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. The BPS suggests that first and foremost, teachers, parents, and students themselves must learn to recognise exam anxiety and the different ways it presents itself in different students. It may be easier to spot in those with already high levels of anxiety, but harder to recognise in others who may be appear ‘lazy’ or ‘unmotivated’. Discussing exam anxiety with students and creating a space for those to understand it in themselves and speak up about how they are feeling is a great way to not only be able to recognise those who are struggling, but to create an open conversation and encourage more people to ask for the help they need.
Then it is important to address negative and exaggerated thinking patterns in students, challenging their thoughts about failure and putting them to the test, e.g., asking parents how they would feel about their children’s results, or considering alternative options for the future if one exam doesn’t work out. It would also be beneficial to teach students how to manage their physical reactions to anxiety, for example employing mindfulness techniques or breathing exercises to calm the heart rate and muscle tensions in exams. This will help students to focus on the exam itself rather than their performance or negative feelings. Finally, it is important to teach effective approaches to revision, considering the fact that not every student is able to revise in the same way, and helping them to understand how to plan and monitor their own revision. Revision plans should also include time for breaks, ensuring a balance between studying and personal time, enabling students to do things they enjoy and look after their mental health and wellbeing through a stressful period. This will help students to feel in control and actively participate in their learning, keep on top of their revision, and feel confident going into exams.
High levels of exam anxiety may be more difficult to deal with or may be a sign of an underlying mental health condition, for which some may consider professional help. If you or someone you know is struggling with exam anxiety or any related or other mental health issues, we at Surrey Therapy Practice have a team of professionals specialised in a range of therapies for children and young people. Many of our therapists tailor their approach to best suit individual needs. If you would like to make an enquiry, get in touch here.