Exam Stress

What is exam stress?

Sitting an exam can be a stressful experience. Although, (a little bit of) stress does us good and motivates us to do the work we need to do to complete various tasks. How else would we motivate ourselves to learn how to spell 100 sight words, learn to understand complex maths equations or read large university texts? However, exam stress can become problematic when your expectations to succeed become so high that you no longer feel capable to do enough study necessary to pass your exam. During such times you may also feel a lot of pressure to do well from your family, school, university or place of work. You may be fearful of not doing well enough, feel like you are going to fail, or worry that you haven’t done enough work to pass. You may be afraid of letting yourself down, not getting good enough grades, or missing out on your desired university course.

Worries about doing well or pre-exam nerves may seem much worse, especially if you haven’t sat an exam before, if you haven’t sat one for a really long time, if you have any specific learning difficulties that you worry about impacting on your performance, or if English is not your first language. Further, exam stress does not exist in isolation. Rather, there may be other stressors in your or your family’s life that may also contribute to your experience of stress.

What are the symptoms?

  • Difficulty getting to sleep or difficulty waking up in the morning
  • Constant tiredness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Poor appetite
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Increased anxiety and irritability
  • Increased heart rate
  • Migraines/headaches
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness

So how should I deal with exam stress?

  • Recognise when you’re stressing out. Having a break or talking to someone who knows the pressure you’re under will help to get things back into perspective.
  • Avoid comparing the amount of work you have done with your friends. Those “Oh my God I’ve only read Romeo and Juliet 34 times” conversations will typically usually exacerbate your stress.
  • Make a realistic timetable. Stick to it. There is no point planning on studying for 8 hours straight after spending the whole day at school or work.
  • Eat right. Have a proper breakfast, lunch and dinner. No one can think straight on Coffee and Coco-Pops.
  • Protect your sleep. Do something relaxing before you go to sleep. Revising work in your bed will only keep you awake – your bed is for sleep, not a desk.
  • Make sure you exercise. Physical activity will help you to de-stress. Acting like a sloth only serves to make your mind fuzzy.
  • Panic is often triggered by hyperventilating (ie quick, shallow breaths) or feeling that you are losing control. So if you feel like you are going to lose it during your exam, take a moment to sit back and re-focus your attention on taking nice, soft and gentle breaths.
  • Stay away from exam ‘post-mortems’. It doesn’t matter how your friend responded to Question 7 as you cannot go back and change your response.
  • Ultimately, don’t forget that you do have a life outside of study and exams. It might seem really bad at the moment, but exam stress won’t last forever.

If you find that you or someone you know is experiencing a significant amount of stress associated with exams, please see your school or university counsellors or talk to your GP about obtaining a referral to a psychologist for further assessment and assistance.


About the Author: Peta Lilley

Peta completed the Clinical Psychology PhD Program within the School of Psychology, The University of Queensland (UQ). The focus of her research was the development of emotional and behavioural difficulties (particularly Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD) in children and adolescents following trauma. Peta has also completed a post-doctoral research fellow position in the School of Medicine at UQ.


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