Exam Anxiety

6th May 2022

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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:

Anxious thoughts that are focussed on failure, can lead to damaging self-worth judgements wherein the individual:

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:

What are the different causes of exam anxiety for specific students?

According to psychologists, exam anxiety often occurs when a young person:

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.

2. Emotional intervention. Use meditation and mindfulness techniques to relieve unpleasant emotions and anxiety symptoms (e.g., increased heart rate, shakiness, dizziness, panic).

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.

Developing effective coping strategies is fundamental to tackling exam anxiety. Moreover, the skills learnt can be translated to all aspects of life.

Good luck!

Further reading and resources:

Article date 6th May 2022

Article written by Imogen Clifford, Assistant Psychologist, Bristol CBT Clinic