Exam anxiety

For some people examinations are a source of inordinate stress. It can be very debilitating mentally. Such stress can lead to medical troubles and can spoil what would otherwise be a good time at Heriot-Watt University. Also, it can reduce the efficiency of performance so that results emerge lower than they should. Of course, most people have some reaction to examinations looming so the problem is to know if we ourselves are the ones who have a more definite problem or whether we are normally apprehensive.

How do I know if I am excessively anxious?

There are two good indicators which will help you identify whether your concern about exams might be something greater than the usual unease which most people feel:

1. Usually you will be aware of a history of difficulty with nerves at various times before and/or during exams. See below for a checklist of possible reactions.

2. Usually you will be aware that your worries "turn on". "Turning on" is a phrase which means that the worries suddenly seem to appear - when you wake up one morning, or somebody says something, or something reminds you about an exam. The effect is one where you feel generally "turned on" to worry and have unpleasant feelings without any other cause. Typical times for worry to turn on are:

  • Long before - at the beginning of the exam year or before you even arrive at college
  • About three months before exams
  • The week preceding exams
  • 36 hours before the exam
  • At the start of the exam
  • During the exam
  • After the exam.

If worrying about exams is your thing you will probably have strong reactions at more than one of these times.

Typical reactions to exam stress

  • Physical symptoms - Anything can happen but typically: sleep isn't right, there's loss of appetite, skin rashes develop, neck ache, headache, increased craving for alcohol, stimulants, caffeine. There may be actual nausea.
  • Physical sensations - Again anything can happen but typically: sensations of panic, dizziness, muscular tension, hyperventilation, sensations of nausea.
  • Thinking - Preoccupation with exams even though the exams may be ages away. Some of the thoughts are uncomfortable ones and may contain self critical ideas, running yourself down and comparing yourself unfavourably with others in more than one way. You may see the future as bleak with you as a loser - not getting your degree or being inferior to others. There may be some memory loss.
  • Images - These usually take the form of unpleasant scenes or flashbacks from previous exams. They can be very vivid. There may be nightmares.
  • Actions - You may find yourself tending to try and block out the subject of exams - maybe you avoiding going near to the exam halls, not looking at old exam papers, leaving lectures or turning off when the subject is mentioned. You may be too easily distracted with very short spans of concentration. You may tend to find yourself forgetting easily and getting writer's block. One key factor is that your normal functioning at study tasks become lessened. A drop of a quarter of your normal efficiency is indicative of exam stress.
  • Effect on interaction with others - Other people can be involved in the worry. You may find yourself withdrawing, unable to talk to people as much as usual. You may find yourself frightened of what people may say about exams. People may be less reassuring than usual.
  • Feelings - Your mood is usually slightly down or anxious; it can be exclusively one or the other but often comes mixed. There may be feelings of terror. You may experience some despair.

What causes excessive anxiety?

The explanations about this type of worry are very varied. One thing is certain - with this type of worry there is invariably a move from simple worry to definite anxiety. It has been suggested that this can be our personality type but also may have some origins in earlier periods of our lives. Just occasionally, the worry can emerge for the first time when we have a variety of other stressors. Some suggest that a sensitivity to imagined criticism may be to blame.

How to deal with it

Three main targets are suggested:

  • Stop avoiding the issues
  • Learn to handle anxiety more effectively;
  • Strengthen exams and revision skills.

It is best to use all three approaches simultaneously. Just sitting practise exams, for example, without finding ways to reduce your worry and accompanying thinking and imaging may not be enough. In the same fashion, there are definite skills which have to be used in exams and these can be relatively easily learned and developed. However, just relaxing and learning new skills may ignore your need to actually confront the avoidance.

Here are some helpful hints:

  • Explore the critical nature of your thinking. Dispute your negative beliefs about yourself. You have got this far; why should you fail now?
  • Try a relaxation exercise
  • Combat the avoidance. Look at old papers - design your own questions - make yourself rehearse with other people and your tutors.

Many of these tasks can be undertaken with self-help and they may also be helpfully tackled in conjunction with a Counsellor or Student Advisor because sometimes it needs someone else help to get us to face a difficulty. Also new skills develop more easily when you have a chance to talk it out.