‌Exam stress

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.

You may experience a panic attack, which is a severe experience of acute anxiety. Panic attacks come unexpectedly and if you do not know what is happening, you may think you are going mad, having a heart attack or about to die. Although panic attacks can be very frightening, they are not actually harmful.

How can I help myself?

Dealing with panic

The best tactic is to try recognising what is happening and explain it to yourself in a more realistic way. 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 25 minutes fighting yourself and working ineffectively.

Ways to calm yourself down

  • Remind yourself that your panic will end.
  • Divert your attention (talk to someone, count backwards from 50, look at how different your thumb print is from your little finger print).
  • Consciously try to relax your whole body.
  • Do something you find easy that makes you think (draw a doodle, write down 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, which helps
  • 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)
  • Think positive, coping thoughts such as "I know I can deal with this panic," or “I am going to relax my body and get through this."
  • Remind yourself of a similar situation which you survived and what helped then.
  • 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 and whether it suits them, ponder whether you would do their hair differently.
  • Consciously try to slow yourself down for a moment, breathe deeply but do not hold your breath.
  • 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.

Control your breathing

If you begin to feel panicky try to regulate your breathing.

Slow, steady breathing will rapidly reduce panic sensations. Concentrate on breathing rather than the bodily sensations of panic. Practise breathing like this so that you can do it when you need to.

Breathing slowly and regularly in and out of a paper bag held over your mouth and nose for about 10 minutes works very well. Cupping hands over your mouth and nose can also help.

In crisis now

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

A group of students revising

Audio downloads (MP3)

Related content