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Exam anxiety: what it is and how to cope.
May marks the beginning of GCSE, A level and university exams for thousands of young people in the UK.
Whilst many will approach exams with some level of stress and nervousness, up to 40% of female and 20% of male students will struggle to manage their anxiety. This article looks at the what, why, and how of exam anxiety, providing the knowledge you need to identify and support a young person who is struggling.
What is exam anxiety and how does it affect students?
Most people will experience some level of anxiety in the lead up to an exam or performance-evaluative event. The anticipation of what is to come can leave you feeling sick, panicked, and dizzy. While most people can cope with the anxiety, or even use it to their advantage, young people who are highly exam anxious struggle to cope, often engaging in unhelpful behaviours that hinder their performance.
Exam anxiety occurs in response to a young person’s appraisal of an exam as highly threatening. Not to be mistaken for stress, which occurs when we feel unable to cope with a pressure, exam anxiety is defined by persistent, excessive worries dwelling on failure that are:
- Enduring (hard to dispel) but not irreversible
- Specific to performance-evaluative situations (e.g., school exams, stage performances)
- Unique to the individual, with large individual differences in how the anxiety manifests for each young person.
Anxious thoughts that are focussed on failure, can lead to damaging self-worth judgements wherein the individual:
- Judges their own self-worth negatively (e.g., “I am a failure”)
- Believes others will (or do) judge them negatively (e.g., “my parents will think I am a failure”)
- Doubts their academic identity and ability to succeed (e.g., “what’s the point in trying, I know I’m going to fail”).
These beliefs can have a big impact on young people’s mental health and wellbeing. It’s therefore important to identify and respond to the needs of students and to offer support to those who need it most.
What are the signs of exam anxiety?
As a parent/carer/teacher/friend, it is important to be vigilant to the signs of exam anxiety so that the young person can be supported in finding adaptive ways of coping.
Potential signs of exam anxiety include:
- Thoughts: overwhelmed and out of control, using language that is focused on failure and hopelessness.
- Mind-blanking: “going blank” in exams and struggling with concentration.
- Emotions: displaying panic, fear, and/or anxiety.
- Physiological responses: increased heart rate, dizziness, fainting, stomach-ache or “butterflies”, tight and tense muscles.
- Motivation to study/revise: a young person may completely disengage from their studies, withdrawing all effort, or may even appear completely ambivalent to the exam (avoidance).
What are the different causes of exam anxiety for specific students?
According to psychologists, exam anxiety often occurs when a young person:
- Holds positive beliefs about worry. A young person may think that worrying/ruminating is useful in helping them to prepare for an exam. Or they may think that not worrying means they will fail/they don’t care. This then triggers rumination, which leads to an increase in unpleasant emotions such as panic, fear, and anxiety.
- Has negative competence beliefs. They may suffer with chronic low self-confidence, believing they are incapable of success. As well as impacting self-esteem and self-worth, this may encourage avoidant behaviours as they don’t want to be seen as a failure to oneself or others (e.g., non-attendance).
- Is biased towards threat cues in the environment. The young person is constantly scanning for signs that indicate failure or negative judgement. In turn, reinforcing their negative self-beliefs that “I’m not going to do well”. Focussing attention on negative cues can make it harder to concentrate on tasks. The young person may procrastinate more and self-sabotage, feeding a vicious cycle that impacts their performance.
In summary, highly exam anxious students have negative self-beliefs, ineffective ways of coping, and tend to procrastinate, resigning themselves to their perceived inevitable failure.
How to support children and young people with high exam anxiety
Cognitive Behavioural Intervention (CBI) is often required to break the vicious cycle of exam anxiety. With the help of a teacher/carer/therapist, young people can first identify and challenge unhelpful thinking traps, before using emotional interventions to cope with unpleasant emotions, and behavioural interventions to build confidence in their ability.
1. Identify and challenge unhelpful thinking.
- Overgeneralisation. A student comes to a general conclusion based on a single event e.g., “I failed my Maths exam, so I will fail all of my exams”.
CHALLENGE: guided discovery. Think of all the instances (e.g., passing an exam) to challenge the idea that failing one more exam means that they will all be failed.
- Mind reading. A student assumes that they know how other people will act or think e.g., “my parents will think I am a failure”.
CHALLENGE: put the idea to the test. Thinking failure will result in being judged as worthless by parents is challenged by asking parents and putting the mind reading to the test.
- Catastrophising. Seeing one event as leading to a disastrous outcome that is possible but unlikely e.g., “if I fail these exams, I’ll never be able to get a job”.
CHALLENGE: evidence-based thinking. Thinking that failure will result in a catastrophic outcome can be challenged by thinking about alternative outcomes or options.
2. Emotional intervention. Use meditation and mindfulness techniques to relieve unpleasant emotions and anxiety symptoms (e.g., increased heart rate, shakiness, dizziness, panic).
- Diaphragmatic breathing. Deep breathing exercise, also known as box breathing. Breathing in for the count of 4 seconds, holding for three, before breathing out again for 4, and holding for 3.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. Tensing and untensing muscles in different parts of your body to relieve tension e.g., clenching fists and then releasing.
- Guided visualisation. For example, picturing a “happy place”.
3. Behavioural intervention. Anxiety is often associated with avoidance, procrastination, and withdrawal of effort/engagement. Behavioural interventions should therefore seek to build confidence in revision which will reduce anxiety.
- Plan. Devise flexible plans for revision sessions, setting goals that are achievable and attached to a specific time/deadline. Topics should be broken down into small manageable chunks. Devise a feasible revision plan for the day and week ahead.
- Revise. Revision should be tailored to what works for the individual.
- Evaluate. Learning should be tested to assess gaps in knowledge that may need to be re-addressed. Use past papers, quizzes, and friends/family to test knowledge of specific topics. Where there are gaps repeat the process of planning > revising > evaluating.
Developing effective coping strategies is fundamental to tackling exam anxiety. Moreover, the skills learnt can be translated to all aspects of life.
Further reading and resources:
Article date 6th May 2022
Article written by Imogen Clifford, Assistant Psychologist, Bristol CBT Clinic