How to overcome exam anxiety: 10 helpful tips to stay calm

Written by: Kerstin Lakits, Nov 17, 2022

Exam anxiety is a common problem among pupils and students. It restricts your attitude towards life, your performance at school or university as well as your daily life. Weeks before the exam, anxiety builds up in your body, which peaks on the day of the exam. Unfortunately, exam anxiety often affects your academic performance negatively. However, you are not alone with this problem! We will explain where exam anxiety comes from and, most importantly, how you can manage it!

What is exam anxiety?

Exam anxiety describes the fear of failing an upcoming exam or test.

The causes of exam anxiety are not clear yet; however, these factors can contribute to developing exam anxiety:

  • Our fear is stronger than our sense of duty. We cannot focus on the task at hand because fear inhibits our performance or paralyses us.
  • We focus on our negative self-perception and thereby weaken our self-confidence.
  • Because of chronic stress we don’t have enough mental or physical resources available.
  • The performance pressure coming from yourself, your social environment or society makes failing an exam the worst-case scenario.
  • People with perfectionist tendencies expect too much of themselves and do not accept or understand failure.
  • Inadequate exam preparation and procrastination amplify the feeling of not being able to pass this exam.

In principle, fear has a positive function: Fear increases our attention and motivates us to take action. However, if the anxiety becomes chronic or all-consuming, it has a paralysing effect that limits us.

Identify exam anxiety: symptoms

According to different studies, 25% of students suffer from exam anxiety. A lot of people know this fear. Nevertheless, we have a checklist with the most common symptoms:

  • general restlessness
  • negative thoughts
  • sleeping problems
  • loss of appetite
  • stress eating
  • difficulties with concentration
  • procrastination
  • feelings of nervousness, stress, overwhelming, panic, despair
  • headaches
  • sweating or freezing
  • muscle tension
  • apathy and loss of motivation
  • upset stomach, nausea, digestive problems
  • depressive episodes

What is exam stress?

Exam stress describes the intense feeling of stress and pressure before or during the exam. The symptoms include:

  • mental and physical restlessness
  • feeling of not having enough time and too much to learn
  • all thoughts are about the exam
  • sleep problems
  • changing eating habits
  • feeling helpless, desperate or overwhelmed

Exam stress and exam anxiety are very similar, but there are slight differences. While exam stress focuses more on the pressure that comes with the exam, exam anxiety focuses more on the feeling of fear of failing. Exam stress can be a cause of exam anxiety, so they often coexist.

Is exam anxiety an anxiety disorder?

Exam anxiety and stage fright are not anxiety disorders; however, exam anxiety can develop into a clinical anxiety disorder, which is called phobia of exam situations.

These 10 tips help overcome exam anxiety

1. Structured and regular exam preparation

A good exam preparation helps to overcome exam anxiety because you feel prepared and know that you master the material. This takes some of the pressure off your shoulders. Therefore, work on the exam material regularly and make sure you have plenty of time to revise it all. In doing so you focus your thoughts on something productive and don’t start catastrophizing. Here is a whole article on good exam preparation!

2. Familiarise yourself with the exam situation

The exam will go more smoothly if you know beforehand how it is structured. Prepare for the exam with other students from your class. Ask your teacher about the exam modalities: open questions or multiple choice? How much time do you have? Are tools and resources permitted?

3. Work on your self-confidence

A weak sense of self is one of the main causes for exam anxiety. Learn how to overcome your fears by systematically improving your self-confidence and silencing the inner critic. Learn to show up for yourself and appreciate your achievements. Think about your past successes.

  • How often have you passed an exam despite your fears?
  • Which exams have you already passed that were much more challenging?
  • How often have you thought: “I’ll never pass!”, but then passed?

If it helps you, write a list with all your accomplishments and read it whenever you experience exam anxiety.

4. Find study buddies and allies

Presenting the exam material to study buddies, ideally fellow students, will boost your self-confidence and give you a sense of safety. It will demonstrate how well you know your material.

Maybe you can talk about your fears and problems with a close person or professionals. Your allies can help you overcome your exam anxiety.

5. More motivation and discipline

Make study appointments with your study group or study buddies. Come up with a precise plan with interim goals. You will be more motivated and disciplined if you have plans, goals and appointments with other students.

Sometimes the lack of motivation is at the root of the problem. Therefore, you will find some tips for more motivation in your studies!

STUWO tip from Jakob, resident at STUWO Student City Graz: “I put planned study sessions into my timetable and go to the library, university or a café for my study sessions. This makes it easier to stick to my plan.”

6. Take study breaks

When we feel anxious about our exam, we oftentimes want to study even more to get rid of the anxiety. However, our brain cannot process information endlessly, but needs breaks. So stick to your study plan and take study breaks. Use those breaks to rest, distract yourself and refuel your energy reserves.

Here are some tips for effective study breaks!

7. No cheat sheets

In principle, written summaries are a great study technique; however, you shouldn’t bring a cheat sheet to your exam because in addition to your exam anxiety you will also worry about being caught. Furthermore, you have prepared well enough for the exam and don’t need a cheat sheet. Here are some tips for effective studying!

8. Relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques are a powerful tool for working with all kinds of anxieties and feelings of restlessness if you practice regularly. A proven technique is progressive muscle relaxation by Jacobson. Lay down comfortably, every time you breathe in squeeze a single muscle, when you breathe out release the muscle. Repeat with every muscle.

Mindfulness training can also help with overcoming anxieties. Therefore, we have an article with the best mindfulness exercises that you can integrate into your daily life. If you practice daily, you will find your centre more easily in stressful situations.

If you feel panic rising during the exam, try these instant relaxation techniques:

  • Put one palm on your forehead, the other on the nape of your neck. Concentrate on the feeling of your hands on your head. This will distract you and the warmth of your palms will calm you down and give you energy.
  • The Shen-Men point is right above your auricle. Put your finger behind your ear above the auricle and put your thumb on the point to reenergise. Massage the point for ca. one minute in circles.
  • Calm down with controlled breathing. Breathe in deep and let your breath flow out. After breathing out, hold your breath for six to ten seconds (count in your head). Repeat the exercise until the anxiety disappears.

STUWO tip from Melanie from Linz: “Sports is my miracle drug! I also try to make time for exercizing during exam period because it distracts me for an hour, gives my brain a break and eases any tension in my body. If it’s possible, I will try to go for a run in the morning of the day of the exam.”

9. What to do if you have a blackout

What is a blackout?

During a blackout your brain blocks information processing and your knowledge is not available because the tension and the stress are too intense. Your brain is overwhelmed and therefore shuts down.

Despite great exam preparation, your brain completely turns off at the sight of the exam paper or at the first question. But there is no need for panic! Stay calm! Here are some tips on how you can calm down and proceed with your exam:

  • Put the exam sheet away or ask the teacher for a moment.
  • Close your eyes or look out of the window.
  • Breathe in deeply and out. Breathe in (5 seconds) – breathe out (7 seconds). This activates your parasympathetic nervous system and slows down your heartbeat.
  • Try the instant relaxation techniques!
  • Skip questions that you cannot answer immediately. Start with questions that you can answer. This will boost your self-confidence and redirect your brain towards something productive.

10. Preparation on the day of the exam

On the day of the exam, it is important that you remain focused, self-confident and calm. Here are some steps that will help you:

  • Nutritious breakfast: Avoid coffee, drink green tea and a lot of water. Eat something light and nutritious (e.g. fruits, vegetables, nuts)
  • Favourite outfit: Your favourite outfit will put you into a good mood and make you feel good.
  • No time stress: Leave your home early enough and plan for small delays along the way.
  • Avoid pessimists: People who think negatively and feel panicked will spread their nervousness. Withdraw somewhere before the exam, listen to some music and do some relaxation techniques.
  • Mental relaxation after the exam: Stay away from conversations like “What did you put for question three?”. Go for a walk, listen to music or read an interesting book.

Remember: What happens in the worst case? You will try again! Even if you don’t pass the exam at the first try, you can do it again and are even better prepared because you already know what the exam will look like.

Consultation centres for students with exam anxiety

You are not alone with you fears! Talk to your friends, other students or your family about your feelings and fears and get some positive feedback from them!

The psychological student helpline can also help you with tips and tricks. The Austrian Student Representation (ÖH) also offers counselling. Here are counselling centres for help during your studies and psychological counselling centres for students!

Furthermore, there are numerous workshops on coping with stress and overcoming anxiety in Austria, where you can work and your skills and fears. If the exam anxiety is challenging for you, you can also get professional help from a psychotherapist.


Which household remedies and tricks help overcome exam anxiety?

Here are some household remedies and tricks against exam anxiety:

  • Green tea has ingredients that calm you and reduce your anxiety.
  • Coffee and energy drinks can increase your anxiety. You should avoid caffeine and excess sugar during exam period.
  • You can buy plant-based medicine for anxiety in the pharmacy. (e.g. valerian drops)
  • Essential oils (e.g. lavender) have a calming effect. Bring some with you, put a few drops on a tissue and breathe it in.
  • Movement and sports ease physical tension and distract you from the up-coming exam.

What should I do on the day of the exam?

  • Do some relaxation exercises in the morning.
  • Eat a light, nutritious breakfast and drink lots of water.
  • Pick your favourite outfit to wear.
  • Leave on time and plan a time buffer for the way.
  • Listen to your favourite music on the way to university.
  • Avoid other nervous students.
  • Get a motivational boost from your family and friends

Exam anxiety is completely normal. You are not alone with this and don’t have anything to be ashamed for. With good exam preparation and relaxation techniques, you can reduce your anxiety to a point where you can perform well during your exam. We cross our fingers and wish you all the best for your exams!


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