How can I manage exam stress?

The run up to exams or assessment deadlines can be stressful but it is important not to let stress overwhelm you. Learning to manage stress and taking time to relax will help you study more effectively. Use the following tips and advice to help you manage your stress more effectively. 

Tips and advice for managing exam stress


It is important to make time to relax and do activities that are enjoyable. This can help to improve your mood and reduce your stress levels by calming the body and mind. It can also help you to sleep. Without taking the time to unwind, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and stressed. Relaxation can involve doing something that you enjoy, or just being by yourself.
Good examples might be reading a book or having a bath. Exercise is also particularly effective at helping us to relax. What you do does not really matter. Try to choose something that you will look forward to and that gives you a break. Doing an activity that you enjoy will also give you less time to spend worrying.
Here is a list of activities that might help you to relax: 
  • Do some exercise (e.g. walk, swim, cycle)
  • Read a book
  • Watch your favourite TV show
  • Go to the cinema
  • Do something creative (e.g. draw, paint)
  • Visit a friend or family member
  • Listen to music

Controlled breathing

The 3/5 Technique
Many people find that the easiest way to relax is to concentrate on their own breathing.
First of all, settle yourself comfortably in a place where you won’t be disturbed.
  • Sit or lie comfortably with your hands side by side in your lap, or your arms by your side and your legs uncrossed. Close your eyes. Now concentrate on becoming aware of your feet on the floor, your legs and arms where they are resting and your head against the cushion, pillow or chair back.
  • Keep your shoulders down and take in a really deep breath – it can be helpful to put your hand on your tummy to feel it inflating like a balloon, as this lets you know that you are doing it right.
  • Then make each out-breath last longer than your in-breath. A good way to do this is to breathe into the count of 3 then breathe out more gently and slowly to the count of 5. If you cannot breathe out for that long, hold your breath for the remainder of the time while you keep counting to 5 and then breathe in again.
  • Do this about 10 to 20 times, knowing that you will relax more with each breath. Concentrate on the counting (try not to let your mind wander off; if it does just gently bring it back) and be aware of how much less tense you feel just by relaxing you breathing and blocking out your over-busy thoughts.
  • The 3/5 (or if you want to make this longer 7/11) technique is good for instant relaxation too. Just do it a few times, wherever you are, if you feel tearful or panicked or if you are getting so wound up you can’t make a simple decision. No-one will know you are doing it so there is no embarrassment to fear.

Challenging unhelpful thoughts

The way that we think about things has an impact on our stress levels during and before our exams. Many of these thoughts can be negative and unhelpful, and it is important to remember that they are just thoughts without any real basis, not necessarily facts. We may believe these thoughts when we are stressed but it is important to question them as they can be based on wrong assumptions.
Examples: Catastrophising and predicting – what if? Jumping to conclusions/ mind reading/ taking things personally Exaggerating the negative and playing down the positive Black and white rigid thinking Critical self ‘Shoulds’ and ‘Musts’
To challenge these thoughts:
  • Identify the patterns your thoughts take
  • What would you say to a friend in a similar situation?
  • What are the costs and benefits of thinking this way?
  • Is there another way of looking at this?
This is a technique to fend off symptoms of anxiety and stress when they feel overwhelming. It can calm you, give you space to think in a more considered and positive manner and can be helpful before or during an exam if you are beginning to panic.
  • Focus on your breathing – start to notice your breath leaving and coming into your body
  • Visualise being in a safe, pleasant and comfortable environment – how does it feel?
  • Count things you can see that begin with a specific letter of the alphabet
  • isten to your favourite music – identify the different sounds and instruments you can hear
  • Count backwards from 1000 in multiples of 7

Resources and useful links


Togetherall is a 24/7 mental health support site which is available for free to all Heriot-Watt Students. It provides a safe space online to get things off your chest, explore your feelings and learn how to improve and self-manage your mental health and wellbeing. It's available 24/7, is totally anonymous and provides online peer support. Go to Togetherall (external site) and sign up with your university email address. You then choose an anonymous username for your time on Togetherall.

Student Wellbeing Services

The Student Wellbeing Service is also here to help you manage and cope with exam stress. For more information, you can email

Student Success Advisors

The Student Success Advisors are recent Heriot-Watt graduates and are experienced in sitting exams at the University. They can provide you with advice and guidance if you require it. You can contact the Advisors at

Key information

Student Wellbeing Service

Gillian McLaughlin

Job title
Student Advisor - Scottish Borders Campus
+44 (0)1896 89 2178

Ming Fai Yap

Job title
Counselling and Support - Malaysia Campus

Dubai Wellbeing Services

Student Success Advisors

Job title
Student Success Advisor - Malaysia Campus

Student Service Centre - UK Campuses

+44 131 451 8899