Exam Anxiety and How to Overcome It

Dr. Anurag Tiwari


Jan 16, 2023


3:20 PM


“Exam anxiety is a part of the student experience. Anxiety in a healthy amount actually improves your focus, and helps you prepare better. However, when the threshold exceeds, students experience multiple bothersome symptoms that can hamper their academics. There are several physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms of exam anxiety. It is important for a student to acknowledge, accept, and address these issues in order to overcome anxiety. You can keep your anxiety in check by doing a few things while preparing, during, and after an exam. Seek professional help, whenever necessary. ”

Your heart starts racing, deep breaths are hard to find, and blood rushes through your body. Fear or anxiety elicit such responses, and the stimuli can be anything. It can be a close-call accident, the mini-heart attack you get when you can’t find your phone, or the daunting examinations.

Fear is a response to an immediate threat, whereas you experience anxiety when the threat is looming over the horizon. Imagine a lion standing right in front of you; that is fear. On the other hand, if you get lost in a jungle and you’re worried that you might encounter a lion, that is anxiety. Anxiety is a response to an impending threat that you might never come across. For example, the anxiety of not performing well in a test.

Exam or test anxiety is defined as a common and usually normal stress response felt prior to, during, and occasionally following examinations. Exam anxiety presents an issue when it is intense, continues over time, and impedes academic performance. Otherwise, a moderate degree of anxiety actually improves your ability to concentrate. The complex almond-shaped structure in our brains known as the “Amygdala” is in charge of the fear response. It releases neurotransmitters that improve your ability to concentrate.

Evolutionarily, the hyper-vigilant state of humans helped them adapt and survive because, back then, the world was perilous. Cavemen had to outsmart and outmuscle wild animals. Even until the 20th century, another war was just around the corner, and it was survival of the fittest. So, the human body goes into fight or flight mode whenever it senses fear. The blood supply to the larger group of muscles is increased; heartbeats and breathing get faster to facilitate that; and your extremities are cold. These bodily changes helped a person either run away (flight) from the danger or go face-to-face (fight) with the threat.

Although today’s men are spared from such life-threatening perils, they face modern-day fears and dangers. However, our body still elicits a similar physiological response that is often unnecessary and impertinent. For instance, during exams, activation of the amygdala indeed improves your concentration. But increased blood supply to the larger group of muscles isn’t going to help you “fight” examination. On the contrary, these unnecessary responses will induce unpleasant symptoms such as palpitations, breathlessness, and cold extremities. Additionally, when the amygdala is overactive for a longer duration, it can lead to chronic conditions such as chronic stress, burnout, and anxiety disorder.

What are the symptoms of Exam Anxiety?

Exam anxiety can cause a variety of symptoms in individuals, which can happen before, during, or even after exams. The symptoms that are frequently reported are listed below.

  • Increased heart rate
  • Tensed Muscles
  • Easily fatigued
  • Increased sweating
  • Difficulty breathing or tightness in chest
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Light-headedness or dizziness
  • Changes in sleeping habits (such as oversleeping or undersleeping).
  • Feeling nervous or overwhelmed
  • Experiencing panic or panic attacks
  • Hopelessness and helplessness
  • Feeling a sense of shame or guilt.
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulties recalling key information (going blank)
  • Worrying about the time limitation or outcome of the exam
  • Comparison to others during the test
  • Able to recall exam answers only after the exam is over.
  • Pacing or acting agitated (shaking legs, increased activity)
  • Cramming or staying up late
  • Procrastinating and avoiding studying
  • Making simple errors on the exam despite knowing answers
  • Skipping exams
  • Leaving the exam as soon as possible or before finishing
  • Using alcohol or other substances to cope with or avoid stress

Tips to help you overcome Exam Anxiety

The root causes of exam anxiety include a fear of failing, a lack of sufficient preparation, or past negative examination experiences. Here are some tips to help you keep calm in the days leading up to, during, and after an exam.

How to deal with your anxiety before an exam

  • Expect and accept some level of anxiety as it is a part of the student experience.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet; set aside separate time to exercise; and get adequate sleep. Avoid excessive coffee intake to stay up late, as it might increase your anxiety.
  • Develop your study skills, as you'll feel more relaxed if you systematically go through the content that will be on the test.
  • Identify your anxiety signs to manage stress and practice relaxation techniques such as meditation, mindfulness activities, and deep breathing.
  • Stop when you are overwhelmed with negative or anxious thoughts, take a few deep breaths, and use positive self-talk to motivate yourself.
  • Get perspective and remind yourself that this is only one assessment in the grand scheme of your career.
  • Discuss the course material, but stay away from conversation about how much of the syllabus has been covered, as it could make you feel more anxious.
  • Connect with others, have fun, and take breaks from studying to do things you enjoy.
  • Give yourself a treat or a calming activity after finishing a challenging section of the course so you have something to look forward to.
  • If these methods do not help you and your symptoms are severe, get help from a professional.

What might help during an exam?

  • Take a moment to calm down and use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing. Use positive self-talk and affirmations to further motivate yourself.
  • Remember that you aren’t alone, and most people find exams anxiety-provoking.
  • Read the questions carefully, budget your time, and prioritize the questions you know.
  • Try to answer every question, but if you get stuck, move on to another question for the time being.
  • Do not worry about others’ pace, and focus on your own paper.

What can you do to relax after an exam?

  • Recognize and accept any lingering anxiety. After experiencing significant stress, our nervous system typically needs at least 20 minutes to unwind.
  • Accept that the result is now out of your control, and reward yourself for all your hard work.
  • Assess both the questions you successfully answered and those that were difficult. Review your exam performance and, if necessary, modify the way you prepare.
  • Try to keep your thoughts about anxiety, performance, and self-worth separate. Keep in mind that your grades have little influence on your value or identity as a person.
  • Seek professional help if necessary. Consultation with a psychologist or other mental health professional can help you deal with feelings, thoughts, and actions that create or increase anxiety.

The suggestions stated above can be helpful for any student preparing for an exam, regardless of their level of anxiety. Consider the above-mentioned ideas to create a personalized plan to overcome exam anxiety.