MEMBER WELLBEING – Exam Stress & Anxiety

Exams can be stress­ful and be anx­i­ety pro­vok­ing. Stress is what you expe­ri­ence when you start to become over­whelmed by a stres­sor (approach­ing exam) and your cop­ing meth­ods are either not help­ful (avoid­ance or risky behav­iours) or not enough.  Anx­i­ety is future based. That is, we wor­ry and feel anx­ious about some­thing we are about to do although our feel­ings and asso­ci­at­ed thoughts may be dri­ven by past expe­ri­ences.

Whether you are in the final years of high school or at uni­ver­si­ty, there is no escape from the expe­ri­ence or pres­sure of exams. Some peo­ple approach exams with a pos­i­tive mind­set, see­ing it as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to demon­strate what they know and per­haps pre­fer­ring the short pain of an exam to that of an assign­ment.  How­ev­er, it would be fair to say, these peo­ple are the minor­i­ty.

Exam peri­ods can also be stress­ful for fam­i­lies, as the per­cep­tion and often real­i­ty is that a lot depends on exam results. Whilst there are many path­ways to future aca­d­e­m­ic stud­ies and career choic­es, schools still por­tray exam per­for­mance as a path­way to future suc­cess. So, what can we do to man­age and alle­vi­ate the stress and anx­i­ety asso­ci­at­ed with exam times and what are the signs to look out for if nor­mal stress and anx­i­ety start to become some­thing more.

First­ly, it is impor­tant to under­stand that some stress and some feel­ings of being anx­ious are nor­mal.  Our brains are wired to iden­ti­fy risk and our bod­ies are designed to respond to it.  When faced with a sit­u­a­tion which brings on fear (exam), the brain and body respond by get­ting ready to either fight, flight (run away to safe­ty) or in some cas­es we freeze.  A lit­tle bit of stress is actu­al­ly good for us and has been demon­strat­ed to improve per­for­mance. Why? Because it increas­es arousal and makes you alert.  Under these cir­cum­stances, the brain is able to use the pre-frontal cor­tex (front of brain, respon­si­ble for log­i­cal think­ing, prob­lem solv­ing and con­trol) to approach the stres­sor and use cop­ing strate­gies to solve the prob­lem or resolve the threat. Too much stress and this expe­ri­ence cre­ates a chain reac­tion with the release of hor­mone and chem­i­cals which may make you want to run or freeze. So rather than being able to use high­er order prob­lem solv­ing and think­ing, here, the brain goes into prim­i­tive mode.  Typ­i­cal­ly, this is when you feel over­whelmed and unable to cope with the sit­u­a­tion. Here, the pre-frontal cor­tex is unable to func­tion and the more prim­i­tive part of the brain, the amyg­dala, along with the hypo­thal­a­mus and the pitu­itary gland takes over, releas­ing adren­a­line and cor­ti­sol which can lit­er­al­ly leave you frozen in fear, unable to recall any­thing from all those hours of study and pos­si­bly want­i­ng to run as far away as pos­si­ble.  The more you pan­ic, the worse it gets.

So, what can we do to help man­age stress and anx­i­ety?

Let’s begin with par­ents, why because they can actu­al­ly be cru­cial in help­ing young peo­ple to remain calm.


  • Aim to choose your bat­tles and words wise­ly. Do you want your child to do well at school or have a tidy bed­room?  It is unlike­ly you are going to have both so decide ear­ly and stick to it.
  • Pay atten­tion to your child’s emo­tion­al health and well­be­ing. Pos­i­tive mes­sages and sup­port from you in times of stress and what your child learns about them­selves and you at this time will set your child up for life, more so than exam results.
  • Look out for changes in behav­iours and sleep­ing and eat­ing pat­terns. Is your child par­tak­ing in more risky behav­iours ie drink­ing and oth­er sub­stances?  These can be ear­ly warn­ing signs of some­one who is not cop­ing and needs sup­port.
  • Make sure you have a good rou­tine for your child, ie reg­u­lar meal times (even if they don’t eat it or binge at KFC) and good qual­i­ty food.
  • Find some­where in your house where they can study away from oth­er noise and dis­trac­tion. Bed­rooms do not make the best study places as they are for sleep but yes, this will take some nego­ti­a­tion and pos­si­bly a trip to buy some fan­cy study items!
  • When your child tells you that “you don’t under­stand”, they are prob­a­bly right! It is so much hard­er now than when you were at school.  Kids mature lat­er and job prospects real­ly are quite poor.  They are already putting enough pres­sure on them­selves; you load­ing on more is often not help­ful.
  • If your child doesn’t want to exer­cise, go do it your­self. It will help with your stress lev­els too.
  • Let them know that you love them, tell them it is okay to feel stressed and ask them what you can do to help.
  • If they don’t get the results you or they are hop­ing for, it’s okay, we all learn as much if not more from fail­ure than we do from suc­cess.
  • Avoid ask­ing oth­er par­ents or young peo­ple what their results were. Instead, just con­grat­u­late them for try­ing their best and get­ting through the exam peri­od.
  • Focus on sup­port­ing your own chil­dren. Com­par­ing your child to anoth­er is not help­ful and can actu­al­ly be harm­ful.


  • Break your study down into lit­tle bits and do it often with decent breaks in between.
  • Reward your­self for your efforts with healthy activ­i­ties or treats.
  • Find a study bud­dy, make it fun but get the task done. Being pre­pared is the best way to tack­le exams.  You are less like­ly to want to run if you are feel­ing pre­pared and con­fi­dent and this takes some com­mit­ment from you.
  • Have a good rou­tine, eat, sleep, relax, study, socialise. Rou­tines make life pre­dictable and pre­dictabil­i­ty reduces stress and feel­ings of being anx­ious.
  • Exer­cise doing some­thing you like with peo­ple you like. Exer­cise reduces the feel­ing of being anx­ious, it helps to get those chem­i­cals out of your sys­tem and cre­ates bal­ance and makes you feel good (tru­ly!).
  • If you are feel­ing stressed or over­whelmed, talk to some­one you trust. Peo­ple will lis­ten if you let them know how you are feel­ing.  If they aren’t lis­ten­ing, find some­one who will.
  • Avoid the temp­ta­tion to par­ty hard. Rely­ing on drugs and alco­hol to fix your prob­lems will only bring you more prob­lems.
  • Seek feed­back and guid­ance from your teachers/lecturers/tutors. It is their job to guide you on what you should be study­ing and most of them will do this hap­pi­ly, espe­cial­ly if they see that you are putting in the effort.  If ask­ing in front of oth­ers is intim­i­dat­ing, ask to see them on your own and out of class or send them an email.
  • When faced with the nag­ging bed­room drag­on, give a lit­tle. Just tak­ing up your dirty dish­es to the kitchen is like­ly to cre­ate some sort of har­mo­ny.  Remem­ber, your par­ents real­ly do love you; they just have a weird way of show­ing it some­times!
  • When exams are done, they are done. The results can’t be changed and they are your results.  Com­par­ing your­self to oth­ers is often not help­ful for you or them.  You are all dif­fer­ent and will all get there in the end.
  • Learn from the expe­ri­ence, what worked for you and what might you need to change for next time. It is okay to fail an exam, it is not the end of the world, it might just sig­nal that some adjust­ments need to be made.

For more infor­ma­tion and some use­ful tools for par­ents and young peo­ple on exam stress, anx­i­ety and sur­viv­ing school or uni­ver­si­ty, have a look at the fol­low­ing:

What is real­ly impor­tant to remem­ber is that some feel­ings of being anx­ious are nor­mal.  Feel­ing anx­ious does not nec­es­sar­i­ly mean you have anx­i­ety.  Clin­i­cal anx­i­ety requires a diag­no­sis from a qual­i­fied med­ical pro­fes­sion­al and has cer­tain cri­te­ria which must be met.  Clin­i­cal anx­i­ety has a sig­nif­i­cant impact on your abil­i­ty to func­tion, dai­ly and over a peri­od of time or is extreme in cer­tain, sit­u­a­tion­al cir­cum­stances.  If you have any con­cerns about your­self or a loved one, a great place to start is your GP.

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