Exam nerves

How to cope with exams
Most people experience some degree of anxiety about exams. Whilst a certain amount of exam stress is and can be used as a motivating force, it is important to keep on top of exam anxiety. The best way to do this is to be organised. Some people suffer with stress more than others. For those people, it is important to learn some stress reduction techniques as well as using specific study tips for revision.

Useful stress reduction measures
Don't drink too much coffee, tea and fizzy drinks; the caffeine will 'hype' you and make your thinking less clear. Eat healthily and regularly; your brain will benefit from the nutrients. Avoid Proplus. The physical symptoms associated with stress are caused by the hormone adrenaline, which is necessary to prepare the body for the 'fight or flight' reaction. When overproduced by chronic stress, it simply causes unpleasant physical symptoms rather than of being any use to you. Physical activity will use up the adrenaline, for the purpose it is intended. This can help to reduce some of the unpleasant physical effects associated with stress, such as racing heart, over-breathing and muscular tension. Build some regular moderate exercise into your day to boost your energy and clear your mind. A brisk walk for 30 minutes is as good a form of exercise as any and doesnít need much planning in advance. Try out some yoga, tai chi or relaxation techniques. They will help to keep you feeling calm and balanced, improve your concentration levels and help you to sleep better. Get into a sensible sleep pattern; make sure that you stop academic work at least an hour before you go to bed and then do something relaxing so that your sleep is refreshing and useful. Don't work half the night and then get up late instead. Your body rhythms are not designed for this.

Relaxation techniques
Practise tensing and relaxing each of your muscle groups in turn. Begin with your toes. Clench them and hold them tight for a few seconds, concentrating fully on the feeling. Now gradually and slowly relax the muscles, unclenching your toes and letting them go loose. Progressively move up the body doing the same, until you reach the forehead. Frown tightly, screwing up the facial muscles and then relax them. Practise breathing deeply, evenly and slowly. As you develop this slow rhythm, try to imagine that you are lying on a warm beach, watching the waves. Put the mental picture in tune with your breathing. As you breathe in, imagine the waves washing in: as you breathe out, the waves wash out. Alternatively, invent your own image of a pleasant scene, such as sitting on top of a hill watching the sun go down, or lying in a rocking boat. People are generally divided into two sorts, verbal or visual thinkers. Someone who is tense and predominantly a verbal thinker will find their tongue and throat muscles making tiny movements; a visual thinker will be moving their eyes, even when closed. If you are a verbal thinker, concentrate on relaxing your throat and tongue. If a visual thinker, half close your eyes, concentrating on a spot in front of you, slightly below eye level. After a while, close your eyes completely, whilst still visualising the spot.

Tips for the revision period

  • Create an overview of what you want to revise and break each subject down into manageable chunks. Make headings and allocate each section on a monthly or weekly planner.
  • Ask your tutors for practice questions/past papers.
  • Set definite start and finish times for your revision sessions and have a clear goal for each session.
  • Aim to break your revision sessions up with five minutes break every half hour.
  • Use active revision techniques to make the best use of your revision time.
  • Build a system of regular review into your revision, checking what you know and what you don't know.
  • Develop a technique for question analysis and planning answers to use in the exam.
  • Practise making plans and answering questions under timed conditions.
  • Plan how you will use your time in the exams before-hand. D
  • o it with a friend! Try to make some of it fun and reward yourself with treats and leisure time
General hints
  • Believe in yourself. You wouldn't have been given a place on the course if you didn't have the ability to do it. Therefore, if you prepare for the exams properly you should do fine, meaning that there is no need to worry excessively.
  • Be realistic. Success is wonderful, by all means aim high. But keep things in balance. If you create unrealistic goals, you will only be disappointed. Aim to do your best and for yourself, rather than for friends or your parents. Recognise that none of us can be perfect all of the time.
  • Take steps to overcome problems. Donít battle on alone, get help from a tutor if you donít understand a topic. The learning support service will give advice on study skills and have a mentoring service. The internet also has a lot of sites offering advice on study skills. Psychological and counselling services and staff at the health centre are there to help if it all gets too much. For University of Sussex students, phone 678156 for C&P or look at their website for stress reduction courses.
  • Don't keep things bottled up. Confiding in someone you trust and who will be supportive is a great way of alleviating stress and worry.
  • Keep things in perspective. The exams might seem like the most crucial thing right now, but in the grander scheme of your whole life they are only a small part.
  • If nothing seems to be helping. Some people find that despite all their best efforts, anxiety levels simply keep on rising. This can be self-defeating and you can go round and round in circles. If this is happening, try taking a complete break for a couple of days. If this doesnít help, see your doctor to discuss possible medication to help calm the anxiety. Drugs that can help are beta blockers, which reduce the amount of circulating anxiety and make you feel calmer, without being a tranquilliser. Sometimes antidepressants might be indicated. Donít take a friendís medication, it might be harmful, for example peoples who are asthmatic shouldnít take betablockers.
On the big day
  • Donít work all night before.
  • Make sure you know where and when the exam is.
  • Leave plenty of time to get there.
  • Make sure you have all your equipment in advance.
  • Avoid too much coffee, nicotine and caffeine containing drinks
  • Do some of the relaxation techniques so that you are calm and focused.
  • Donít wind each other up with ideas of what might or might not come up in the exam.
Good luck!

Further information

This article published on
28 November 2005

Next review date 11/1/2013


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