How to deal with exam anxiety

Student sitting down at desk in lecture hall

Most of us will experience some level of anxiety when it comes to exams. It’s a normal response to what can be a pretty intense situation, and it can happen before, during and even after exams. 

You might find that exam anxiety can be motivating and helpful, or that it’s taking a big toll on your performance, mental health and wellbeing. Find out more about what exam anxiety is, learn practical tips for when it becomes too much, and check out how one student managed their experiences with panic attacks during exams.

Helpful vs. unhelpful exam anxiety

Remember, not all exam anxiety is bad! A certain level can be helpful, as it acts as an incentive to prepare and perform well. For example, that ‘butterflies in the stomach’ sensation can actually be a sign that you’re excited and ready to nail your next exam.

The trick is to recognise when your level of anxiety and stress tips over from being a motivating force to more of an overwhelming experience that impacts your wellbeing and your ability to study and perform at your best.

Signs of helpful exam anxiety:

  • You get a little boost in adrenaline, which makes you feel alert and ready.

  • You’re nervous and a bit jittery, but that feeling goes away after your exam.

  • You feel more focused and attentive to your studies.

  • You’re more motivated to study hard and perform well.

Signs of unhelpful exam anxiety:

What can cause anxiety about exams?

It’s different for everyone, but here are some common causes of exam anxiety:

  • Having high expectations. You’re putting heaps of pressure on yourself to achieve a certain result, or it’s piling on from other directions, like your family, community, teachers or lecturers. 

  • Not feeling prepared. You’re struggling to manage your time, or finding it hard to understand what you’re actually studying. 

  • Stressing about the future. You’re feeling stressed about what comes next and worried about how your results will impact your future opportunities, such as getting into uni or finding the job you want after graduating.

  • Comparing yourself unfavourably with others. You’re comparing yourself to, or competing with, classmates and friends and finding it hard to stay in your own lane

  • Dealing with big events. You’re having difficulty balancing personal issues with your studies, such as family problems, relationship difficulties, grief or other big life changes. Or you’re feeling swept up in distressing world events and finding it hard to cope with them on top of exams.

  • Coping with health issues. Exams could be exacerbating existing mental health issues you might have, such as anxiety or depression. Or chronic illness and other physical health problems might be impacting your ability to study and manage everything.

  • Being neurodivergent. Being neurodivergent can mean you have different study needs. For some people, this might make traditional exam settings and exam periods more challenging and stressful. Check out our resources on ADHD.

Calypso’s story: Dealing with panic attacks during exams

Always a high achiever, Calypso realised that her high standards were causing her anxiety and panic attacks. Check out how she managed her experience and dealt with the stress.

I had a panic attack that morning … I’d never had anything like that. That’s probably when I realised that I can get really anxious.

What are some strategies for coping with exam anxiety?

Finding out what works for you might be a process of trial and error, and will depend on what you’re dealing with and what’s going on in your life. But here are some simple strategies to get you started:

  • Get ahead of cramming. Sometimes pulling an all-nighter feels unavoidable, but there are some solid reasons why it doesn’t always work. Find out why cramming might increase exam anxiety (and what you can do instead).

  • Put your sleep first. Consistently getting your eight hours in will help you to feel rested, focused and ready for exams. Get tips on how to get a good night’s sleep and level up your sleep hygiene. 

  • Boost your time management skills. Creating a study schedule, having realistic expectations, factoring in breaks, limiting distractions – good time management skills like these can help you to achieve your study and performance goals and reduce your anxiety. Learn how with these practical tips.

  • Find your balance. All study and no play can be a recipe for increased exam anxiety. Get tips on nailing your study–life balance, such as setting boundaries, making time for self-care and exercise, and recognising and preventing burnout.  

  • Follow an exam checklist. Got an exam tomorrow? Chances are you’ll be feeling a bit more tense than usual. This handy exam checklist will help you to prepare for it – both the night before and on the day – so that you can tackle your exam with confidence and peace of mind. 

  • Have a chat with someone. If you’re finding things hard, chat with a friend, family member or a teacher who can offer perspective and support. Or you could chat to a mental health professional, like a psychologist, a school or uni counsellor, or a peer worker, who can work with you on strategies for managing exam anxiety or other mental health issues. 

  • Explore exam provisions. If you need learning and/or disability support, understanding what exam accommodations are available to you can also help to relieve anxiety. Whether you’re at school, uni, TAFE or elsewhere, a good place to start can be with teachers or lecturers, learning support coordinators, disability support services, student support officers or onsite counsellors, who can help you to understand and facilitate the process.

What can I do now?