Exam stress

Students taking an exam.

You may feel anxious or panicky in the lead up to or during an exam. This is not a sign that you are about to fail.

Exams can be a particularly stressful time, and for some this can lead to a panic attack. A panic attack is a severe experience of acute anxiety.

Panic attacks

Panic attacks come unexpectedly and can be very scary. You may think you are going mad or having a heart attack. Despite how it feels, they are not actually harmful.

In exams people panic because they tell themselves they do not have time to relax. But it is much better to spend five minutes calming down than continue to fight yourself and work ineffectively.

How can I calm myself down?

Try some of the following quick exercises:

  • Remind yourself that your panic will end.
  • Do something you find easy that makes you think (draw a doodle, write your name backwards).
  • Talk directly to the panic: "Forget it, you are not winning, now go away."
  • Breathe slowly through your nose and make sure you exhale for as long as you inhale.
  • Cup your hands over your nose and mouth to breathe in more carbon dioxide.
  • Observe and explain your symptoms to yourself as mere anxiety reactions, eg "I'm dizzy because panic leads to constriction of the arteries to my brain."
  • Remind yourself that panic attacks are not actually dangerous, just unpleasant (like exams).
  • Visualise a calm place or person and let yourself spend two minutes thinking about this.
  • Focus on the present – think about what the person in front of you is wearing.
  • Do something physical. Before an exam go for a walk or do a handstand. During an exam stretch your legs, roll your shoulders, lean back or look at the ceiling.

In crisis now

Call 999 for emergency services - or for security services on campus call 01904 32 3333 or use the Safezone app.

Related content


Still from the ODT Mindfulness video - image of a flower in sunshine

Mindfulness can help you focus and stay present in the moment while studying.

You may find our mindfulness videos helpful:

Excercise 1: Mindfulness

Exercise 2: Counting the breath

Exercise 3: Mindfulness of sound

Self-help podcasts and apps


The Mental Health Foundation has several podcasts that can help you relax.