Coping with Exam Stress

Everyone gets stressed during exams but it's important not to let it get out of control.


Most people worry about exams. Some people voice their worry, some worry in silence. Worry can increase and lead to stress. A little bit of stress can be a good thing as it motivates us to knuckle down and work hard. But exams can make stress levels get out of hand, which can stop us from performing our best. So it's important to address it and get it back under control. When we become stressed, adrenalin is released into the body and prepares us to be on a high alert.

What the difference between feeling under pressure and feeling stressed?

You can begin to experience stress when you feel really under pressure mentally or emotionally. It's natural to feel under pressure during exam season and if you can learn to manage it you will keep the stress away. Some of you may thrive under pressure, it can motivate you and help you to perform at your best. For others, they may feel the total opposite and struggle with pressure, feeling as though they are unable to manage. Pressure becomes stress when you feel as though you are no longer able to cope day to day.

Look out for prolonged or extreme cases of the following if you feel the work's piling up:

  • 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

If you've noticed three or more of the above symptoms and you've experienced them for a few weeks you may need to do something about your stress levels.


Wait - there is help

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.

Don't try to be perfect. It's great to succeed and reach for the stars. But keep things in balance. If you think that "anything less than A+ means I've failed" then you are creating mountains of unnecessary stress for yourself. Aim to do your best but recognise that none of us can be perfect all of the time.

Take steps to overcome problems. If you find you don't understand some of your course material, getting stressed out won't help. Instead, take action to address the problem directly by seeing your course tutor or getting help from your class mates.

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.

These tips were produced for ISMA by Dr Dawn Hamilton. If you wish to go into the subject in more detail then you should read her excellent book Passing Exams - A Guide for Maximum Success and Minimum Stress, published by Cassell, ISBN 0-304-70489-X.