Exam anxiety: how to control your nerves in an exam

Who has not suffered from anxiety about exams on occasion? That time of the year in which, many times, we are demanded -and we demand ourselves- to give everything, obtain the maximum performance, “be up to the task”…

However, there are also people who do not so much seek excellence and that excess pressure causes them anxiety, but rather, for whatever reasons, they feel a lot of anguish when having to face an evaluation situation such as an exam.

But for what other reasons, more specifically, does this anxiety arise? We solve this question and, in addition, we offer you some effective strategies to reduce anxiety, combat the negative thoughts that are often associated with it and control nerves in an exam.  Take note!

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is our body’s response to imminent danger or a threat. It is an alert mechanism that is activated by some internal or external stimulus (usually from the environment), but it can be really distressing, since it often triggers negative thoughts, physiological symptoms such as tachycardia, chest pressure, internal tension.

Thus, anxiety causes physiological symptoms, but also psychological (for example, fear of one’s own anxiety or negative anticipatory thoughts) and behavioral (avoidance of the feared situation).

Anxiety arises for thousands of reasons; one of them, the exams. Who has not been overwhelmed or stressed during exam time? But what exactly can trigger that anxiety?

Why does test anxiety arise?

The reasons why we feel anxiety about exams are various. Among the most frequent we find:

Real stress: our body does not have sufficient resources to face the demands of the environment, in this case, the demands required by the exams (because we have organized ourselves poorly over time, for example).

Irrational beliefs: For example, thinking that “we are not good enough to pass”.

Poor time management/organization, which causes that feeling of “not reaching everything”.

Self-demand: The more self-demanding and critical we are of ourselves, the more likely test anxiety will arise.

Search for “perfection”: when we feel that we do not reach it, we become anguished and put more pressure on ourselves.

Family pressure: this can also cause anxiety, due to the fear of not meeting the expectations of our parents or of not “measuring up”.

Nerves associated with situations that involve an evaluation; as a result of them, the fear (anxiety) arises of being nervous on the day of the exam and making mistakes, not being able to concentrate, etc.

What can you do? Techniques to reduce test anxiety

What can you do to reduce that test anxiety? Before explaining some effective techniques to reduce anxiety, we recommend that you do the following:

  • Plan your time well when studying: make a schedule, a daily routine… Write down what you still need to study and cross out what you have already studied, to gain a sense of control and have the feeling that you are really advancing.
  • Dedicate moments for leisure and rest.
  • Practice self-healing: take care of your life habits (sleep the necessary hours, do some sport during the week, eat well, avoid toxins, etc.).
  • Don’t anticipate; try to focus on the here and now.

And now, more specific techniques that can help you reduce anxiety:

Progressive relaxation

One of the main deactivation techniques, that is, to reduce anxiety levels, is progressive relaxation.

This type of relaxation presents different modalities and variants, although the objective in all of them is the same: tense and release certain muscle groups in order to deactivate the sympathetic nervous system (the one that is activated when we feel anxiety) and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the activated in calm situations).

To carry out this technique, you must gradually apply tension to the different muscles of your body, and then loosen them up. The difference in sensation between the initial tension and the final relaxation produces relaxation and calm. You can apply this technique to reduce test anxiety.

Controlled breathing

Another of the most used techniques to reduce anxiety levels and achieve relaxation is controlled breathing exercises. They involve controlling the breath, inhaling deeply, holding the air for a few seconds and then slowly releasing it on the exhalations.

A simple exercise within this technique is called “4-7-8”. This consists of inhaling for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 7 more seconds, and finally exhaling for 8 seconds. There are many types of exercises related to controlled breathing, deep or conscious breathing, diaphragmatic, etc., that will help you reduce anxiety levels.

Many of them you can easily apply when you feel anxiety about the exams, just at the moment you feel that anxiety (before entering the exam, while studying, etc.).

Thought stopping technique (for anxious thoughts)

Many times, anxiety arises from a certain type of thought (or several of them). In the specific case of anxiety about exams, these are usually negative thoughts focused on the future, such as: “the exams will go badly”, “I won’t get to everything”, “and I won’t have time to study”, “I’m a failure” etc.

A technique to combat these types of thoughts, which will also help you reduce anxiety by eliminating them, is the thought stopping technique (or thought stopping). It implies the following: when the thought appears, say aloud “stop!”, or “enough!” And shift your focus to something else (or do something else other than what you were doing, ideally with your hands).

You can also try taking a deep breath once you say the word and continue doing what you were doing. Another variant of the technique is, instead of saying these words, to do a small action that allows you to separate the moment of thought from the moment you are looking for (without it); for example, stretching a rubber band in your hand, or giving a slight blow to the table.

Cognitive restructuring

Cognitive restructuring is a technique of cognitive therapy that aims to modify dysfunctional or irrational thoughts for more realistic and adaptive ones. As we said, anxiety about exams can be caused by the appearance of negative thoughts (or produce them).

To work on them, we can use cognitive restructuring. Ideally, this will be done in a therapeutic context (in therapy), with a therapist to guide us; however, to begin with, we can carry out small exercises ourselves that help us combat these types of thoughts.

A very useful exercise is that of the four columns; although there are variants of it, one of them, which you can do, consists of:

  • Write in the first column the thought that causes you anxiety.
  • Write in the second, the degree of truthfulness of this thought, on a scale from 1 to 10 (10 being the maximum truthfulness). (What degree of truth do you attribute to the thought? To what extent is this thought realistic?).
  • In the third column, write an alternative thought to the one in the first column, more adaptive and realistic.
  • In the fourth column, write what degree of truth you give to this new thought.

For example:

  • First column: original thought = “I will never pass these exams”
  • Second column: degree of veracity that I give to the original thought; 6.
  • Third column: alternative thought = “if I study, I am more likely to pass.”
  • Fourth column: degree of veracity that I give to the new thought; 5.

Later, you can work with these degrees of veracity: analyze them, question them, and verify them through small reality experiments… With your therapist (if you attend therapy) or without her, if you decide to start this exercise by yourself.

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