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‘My anxiety paralysis me in exams – I’m worried I’ll fail!’

“I’m in my 2nd year and I’m finding that I’m not coping with exams very well. I seem to do okay in my coursework but when put under pressure in exam settings I just go blank. I’ve already had to re-sit some exams and I’m worried I’m going to have to re-sit the whole year if things don’t improve. I’m worried what people think of me and I just feel like a failure and like I’m not cut out for University. It’s especially frustrating because I prepare hard for the exams and feel like I know the material well – but the stress just gets the better of me.”

Eleanor from Student Counselling responds to a student dilemma…

Exams aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and exams are more representative of some people’s skills than others which could be considered unfair – but unfortunately, exams and course work remains the most convenient and accurate way of assessing progress.

From the language you’ve used here, I notice three distinctive unhelpful thinking habits.

Critical self-talk, Mind-reading (making assumptions about what other people think or feel about you) and Catastrophizing. Try to notice when you are doing this and challenge some of this. Look for exceptions or evidence that challenges these ideas. Look up ‘challenging negative thoughts’ for more on this or visit our self-help pages on the intranet.

A big problem with anxious thoughts is that anxiety can often create more anxiety. In other words, the more we worry about anxiety getting the better of us, the more likely it is to happen. This is where a little compassionate acceptance can be useful. It may be that it will be more useful to simply accept that there will be anxiety and discomfort around for you on the day of the exams, and while that’s not nice – it’s to be expected and it’s okay. Turn off the struggle switch.

What your describing here sounds similar to stage-fright, so let’s call it exam fright. You may have a dry mouth, tight throat, sweaty, shaky or cold hands, a fast pulse, nausea, and you may start trembling slightly. You probably feel nervous and uncomfortable and may go utterly blank. Exam fright affects everyone in different ways. Some people may have little to no anxiety when sat in an exam setting, while others may find it quite the ordeal. Here are some strategies for dealing with this very common- and very manageable- problem!

Shortly before the exam:

  • Do something relaxing. Read a favorite poem or listen to a favorite song.
  • Exercise! A quick walk will get oxygen to your brain and calm you
  • Avoid caffeinated foods and beverages like chocolate, fizzy drinks and coffee. They will not give you true energy, but they will speed up your heart rate and make your anxiety more intense.
  • Take small sips of room-temperature water.
  • Don’t force yourself to eat if you’re not hungry.
  • Tense up your muscles for ten seconds, then release and focus on the feeling of relaxation. Start with your feet and work your way up to your shoulders.
  • Visualize! Imagine how well the exam is going to go, and picture yourself being extremely relaxed during the exam – happy, prepared and confident and calm!

During the exam

If you notice that your panicky thoughts are starting to get the better of you remember the acronym STOPP –

STOP, don’t act immediately. Pause.

Take a breath – notice your breath as it goes in and out.

Observe – Notice what you are thinking. What words is your mind saying? Are they descriptions or evaluations, helpful or unhelpful?

Pull back. Put things in perspective. What advice would I give someone else? What meaning am I giving this event for me to react in this way?

Practice what works.

Other things you can do including the following.

  • Cheerlead! Say ‘I can do this’ or ‘I’ve got this’ in your head for example.
  • Breathe! Don’t be afraid to pause and collect your thoughts.
  • Now and then, stretch and flex your neck – sit up straight, look to the ceiling, take a few deep breaths, give yourself encouraging words and continue.

Best wishes,
Eleanor, Student Counsellor

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