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Managing anxiety during an exam

Keep a cool head… slow and steady wins the race

Everyone has experienced exam nerves at least once in their lifetime, which is perfectly normal within reason. Feeling ‘healthy’ nerves can help you focus better and sharpen your thoughts. But high levels of anxiety can derail you and leave you feeling so overwhelmed that you struggle to concentrate. Even if you’ve never experienced exam anxiety, it may catch you off-guard one day. If you are prepared, you’ll know how to handle it, or possibly be able to help a friend experiencing exam anxiety.

Normal exam nerves versus anxiety – how do you tell them apart?

Nervousness is a specific reaction to something, whereas anxiety is often more general. The intensity of the feeling is the differentiator. Being nervous does not stop you from doing the things that make you nervous. Anxiety, on the other hand, can make it difficult to focus and go about your daily activities. If you are experiencing feelings of dread and racing thoughts, combined with headaches, nausea and a very fast heartbeat, that’s anxiety. When you feel both physical and mental symptoms, that’s usually not just being nervous.

Techniques to help you cope with anxiety during an exam

The good news is there are some cool self-help techniques that can help you prevent increased anxiety levels:

  • Technique #1: Preparation: Studying past papers will help you prepare for the questions which may be in the exam. If you are well prepared, you won’t feel stressed and anxious. It also gives you a chance to identify the material you need to pay particular attention to.
  • Technique #2: If/then: prepare yourself before the exam by asking yourself if/then questions so that you have a coping strategy in place:
    • If I don’t know the answer to a question, then I will move on to the next question and come back to it when I am finished.
    • If I am running out of time, then I will skip the questions I am struggling with and first work through the work I do know.
  • Technique #3: Don’t talk about the work: if you start discussing the work with your friends just before the exam you may panic and think that there’s work that you didn’t study. This will send your anxiety levels skyrocketing before you even sit down to write. Just don’t do it!
  • Technique #4: Take care of your physical self: if you eat well, and you sleep well, you’ll be giving your physical self all it needs to write well!
  • Technique #5: Avoid unnecessary stress: pack what you need for the next day the night before, put your clothes out, get up early and arrive at the exam venue with time to spare. Being on time and prepared will lessen the anxiety or even stop it.
  • Technique #6: Breathe: yes, you read right, take deep breaths in and out slowly for a few minutes before you take your seat in the exam venue. You can also visualise yourself writing the exam and knowing all the answers. It’s all about visualising the positive of what could go right instead of stressing over what could go wrong.
  • Technique #7: Positive self-talk: that little voice in your head is very powerful. Change the narrative – keep telling yourself that you are doing well, everything is fine, you are doing your best, and there’s nothing to stress about. This will help you stay positive and focused.
  • Technique #8: Manage your time effectively: divide the number of questions in the exam by the amount of time you have and then pace yourself accordingly. This will remove the stress of thinking that you are running out of time.

Getting help for anxiety if you can’t get it under control

If you’ve tried the self-help techniques and still feel like you are still not coping with your anxiety, you can contact any one of these helplines to get support and counselling:

Cipla 24hr Mental Health Helpline

0800 456 789

Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline

0800 70 80 90

SADAG Mental Health Line

011 234 4837

Cipla WhatsApp Chat Line

(9am – 4pm, 7 days a week)

076 882 2775

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