Under pressure? Top tips for exam nerves

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A student studying at a picnic table.
Keep calm and carry on. As exams approach and you reach the endgame of this term, our Health Promotion and Education Team has some evidence-based tips and resources to help you stay cool, calm and collected.


When you get anxious, your “fight or flight” response kicks in, which is your body’s way of protecting you in threatening situations. Your heart rate goes up and adrenaline floods into your bloodstream to help you be stronger (fight) or move faster (flight).

If you experience this response while studying, try box breathing. Get comfortable, close your eyes (if possible), and focus on your breathing. Imagine your breathing following the shape of a square or box.

•    Inhale, preferably through your nose, for four seconds. 
•    Hold your breath for four seconds. 
•    Exhale slowly through your mouth for four seconds. 
•    Pause for four seconds before breathing in again. 
•    Repeat this process as many times as you can. 

Interestingly, Ma et al. (2017) determined that routine diaphragmatic breathing practices, such as box breathing, led to lower cortisol and stress levels, while improving participants’ attention span. Engaging in even thirty seconds of routine deep breathing can help you feel more relaxed, in control, and able to address the problem at hand. Try it as you study!

Approach, do not avoid

Studying for final exams can be challenging, and many students cope by avoiding stressors, such as skipping study sessions or staying in bed for prolonged periods.

Instead, practice taking small steps to approach anxiety-provoking situations.

•    If you are struggling while studying for an exam, try sending an email to the professor for help. 
•    If you are feeling lonely, try connecting with a classmate.

Challenge your thoughts

Our minds can play tricks on us when we are anxious, which can lead to negative thoughts and incorrect beliefs. For example, you could convince yourself you are going to fail an exam, even though there is no evidence to support this conviction.

Before you accept your beliefs, try challenging them. Ask yourself whether what you are thinking is fact or opinion.

Plan ahead

You may find that a heavy workload is causing you anxiety, especially if this is one of the first times you are managing it entirely on your own. Take steps to help yourself by not leaving studying until the last minute.

Make a study schedule, give yourself plenty of time to review the notes for each course, and stick to your plan. In this way, you can avoid rushing or trying to do too much at once; this will help you feel more relaxed and in control of your workload.

Practice self-care

Habits such as healthy eating, consistent physical activity, and regular sleep are extremely important in regulating your mood and managing stress.

Here are some ways that you can practice self-care:

•    Try establishing your own self-care routine and practice good sleep hygiene. 
•    Set a consistent time to go to sleep and to wake up every day. 
•    Avoid using your bed for activities other than sleep, like studying. 
•    Limit caffeine in the evening and limit alcohol altogether; both interfere with restful sleep. 

Researchers like Okano et al. (2019) suggest that longer sleep duration, better sleep quality, and greater sleep consistency were all associated with improved academic performance. Studies showed that up to 25% of variance in performance was related to sleep!

When to seek professional help

While anxiety and worry are natural, and sometimes useful, human emotions, it’s important to seek professional help when they become prolonged, excessive, or prevent you from functioning on a daily basis. If you’re having trouble distinguishing between normal and excessive anxiety or worry, visit the Health and Wellness Getting help for students webpage to start.

Here are a few other helpful resources: