Your pulse is increasing, your hands are getting clammy and you feel a bit queasy: Most people find it difficult to stay cool right before an exam. However, if you’re also suffering from the fear of failure, which results in sleepless nights or something more dramatic like dropping your class (due to your anxiety), perhaps you should read up on exam anxiety as there is certainly something you can do about it.
Getting nervous before submitting a paper or sitting an exam is completely normal and it’s a natural aspect of students’ lives. Exam anxiety, on the other hand, describes a deep-seated and almost debilitating fear of failure that can come with some serious symptoms such as blackouts.
Anxiety is actually an instinctive and reasonable response to threatening situations. The body is put on high alert by the release of cortisol, cortisone, epinephrine and norepinephrine, which can often manifest themselves as symptoms of exam anxiety:
Those affected are under so much pressure that the fear of failure develops a controlling momentum of its own. In such a state, the body is unfortunately not prepared to perform thinking tasks. The result: Blackouts, problems with concentration and a drop in performance. In a worst case scenario, this leads to the fear of failure being confirmed over again, making it increasingly difficult to free oneself from the vicious cycle.
Those who are naturally ambitious, goal-oriented and have high expectations of themselves can develop exam anxiety. Expectations from family and friends can also add additional pressure. Low self-esteem, constant self-criticism and worries of failure dominate. Students with exam anxiety unconsciously associate their personal value to their performance and may have a long history of suffering behind them. This is because fear of failure often develops during the early school years. Any learning disabilities may also promote the development of test anxiety, if not dealt with in a supportive environment.
You may feel uncomfortable about your exam anxiety or find it hard to talk about. However, many people can relate and the trend only seems to be increasing. Many students can tell you a thing or two about the stress of studying, and one thing is certain: you are in good company. Admitting something to yourself is usually the first and most important step towards making a change.
Have you recently thought about what you are particularly good at and which achievements you can look back on with pride? Please don’t make excuses! EVERYONE has successes. If you can’t think of any examples, ask the people closest to you what they appreciate about you or what makes you unique. Break through the negative mental circles with them. They will be happy to help.
Don’t just talk about it. Note down your talents, moments you were proud of yourself and things you know make you special. Writing this down will help you internalize and memorize your successes. You may want to post your notes visibly in your apartment or near your study space. The bathroom mirror is also a great spot. Overcome your thoughts and take the time to read the notes until you really believe them.
Once you’ve come up with a list of your talents and successes, dig a little deeper by taking some time to go back to those relevant moments and FEEL the emotions. What pleased you in particular? Where did your motivation come from? How did you behave? Write your thoughts and feelings down.
Trying to cram information into your head right before an exam is not only stressful but doesn’t help the situation at all… especially if you are prone to exam anxiety. If you want to sit an exam as calm and collected as possible, simply start revising well in advance so that you can be confident in your own abilities. To make it easier for you, we have already summarized some tips on how to study efficiently.
If you’re concerned about your academic performance, remember to look at the bigger picture! If you neglect taking care of your mind and body, your grades may suffer. When going through intense periods of learning, make sure to be getting plenty of fresh air and exercise and avoid drinking too much coffee or alcohol. Also, consider consuming healthier snacks or Brain foods to give you the sustained energy you need during this time.
The brain needs sufficient and undisturbed sleep, in order to function well. Allow yourself at least seven hours of sleep a night and try to maintain a regular sleep schedule. If you have issues falling sleep: Lavender, Valerian or St.John’s Wort oil can help.
You’re in that awkward period, where you’re a blink away from sitting an exam and you are starting to feel the nerves. Instead of overthinking and worrying about what you may not know, reward yourself by taking a walk, dancing or listening to music. Alternatively, hang out with people who make you feel stable and supported. If you pay attention to how you feel and why, this can often take the fear out of anxiety.
It’s not always possible to get up and go for a walk, when you are on the brink of a blackout in the middle of a written exam. However, should the situation arise…you can prepare yourself. When you feel anxious, your sympathetic nervous system (part of the central nervous system) gets activated. If you begin taking nice, long and controlled breaths, you can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system which can bring balance. If you find yourself panicking anyway, just ground yourself by closing your eyes and focusing on your breath.
Oral exams are particularly scary for many students. If you freeze up and forget an answer or what you were going to say, relax! Exam committees or Professors are not strangers to the situation. Collect yourself and simply mention that you are over-excited, feeling nervous and just need a moment. This will make you authentic and likeable. In an ideal world, examiners have an interest in you achieving great results and therefore, will want to support you if possible!
If you are really stuck, consider talking to your doctor or seek counseling/ psychotherapy. You can also contact the student advisory service. Talking to a professional about your anxiety can be a great relief and a strengthening experience. In any case, you are stronger than your fears!
If you suffer from exam anxiety, be reminded that this is something that can be worked on!