2.7 Exam Anxiety

Exam anxiety is common among university students, and we have encountered numerous successful students over the years who have suffered anxiety prior to and during exams. If you experience what you feel to be unmanageable forms of anxiety, please consider seeking professional advice early, well before the next exam (or class presentation) because interventions take practice and time to be maximally effective. Students with exceptionally severe anxiety may be eligible for certain exam accommodations through the student disability office.

Here is some general advice to those who are prone to exam anxiety.

Some Anxiety is Normal and Healthy

Before an exam or presentation, most of us feel a surge of adrenaline. This helps us feel alert and ready to react and respond to situations quickly, which is helpful to us when we need to be focused and engaged. If we bring this adrenaline under control and frame this state as excitement rather than fear, it can help us ensure we perform at the top of our game. However, if we are reacting too strongly to this excitement, we can lose control of our physical state and experience things like increased heart rate or dizziness, and we can lose control of our thought processes and see patterns of negative or fearful thinking start to take over. Other times, we might freeze altogether and find that we cannot focus on anything at all. The good news is that in many cases, we can learn to keep this kind of anxiety in check.

If you experience mild anxiety symptoms, try closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths. If you are worried that you are not prepared enough, think about all the time you have spent studying before the exam and throughout the term. Picture yourself finishing the exam and handing it in calmly, knowing that you have done well. Sometimes, all it takes is a few moments of space to ease the stress on our nervous system and to consider more positive (and likely) outcomes than those that are causing us to react fearfully to a situation.

Self-Care Helps Our Ability to Cope with Stress

We certainly want to make sure that we are alert for an exam, but caffeine and other stimulants can also excite our nervous systems to the point where otherwise-normal symptoms of anxiety become amplified and harder to control. If you are prone to exam anxiety, consider minimizing caffeine and use of other stimulants that might make you jittery. At the very least, keep your consumption within the range that is normal for you instead of adding a few extra cups of coffee to your morning routine, as the last thing you want is an unexpected jolt of energy that your system is not accustomed to. Other conditions can also enhance anxiety, such as being sleep-deprived, not eating well, not getting enough exercise, or neglecting to take some time to wind down. In the weeks or days leading up to your exam, make sure to include a little extra self-care in your routine.

Those of you who are reading this book have already taken steps to learn how to be academically prepared for your exams, which is great! Your university may also have a tutoring centre, learning support centre, or academic success services department that can also help you develop good study and time management habits. Being proactive about caring for yourself and managing your learning early will go a long, long way in preserving your future mental health when the pressure starts to increase.

When to See a Counsellor or Psychologist

If you are prone to having anxiety that you cannot seem to manage on your own and that inhibits your ability to perform well in school, we recommend you seek help from a psychologist or counsellor who can assist you in getting to the root of your anxiety and help you develop appropriate strategies to bring things back under control. These may include talk therapy, self-regulation strategies, learning assessments, medication, or other treatments. There are lots of options available, and a mental health professional can discuss your symptoms with you to help you determine which interventions are most appropriate for you.

Most universities will have an on-site counselling service for students to use, so check your student services listing to find out how to access these services on your campus.


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Navigating an Undergraduate Degree in the Social Sciences Copyright © 2019 by Diane Symbaluk, Robyn Hall, and Geneve Champoux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.