How to deal with exams when you have anxiety

Aoife gives her top tips for managing anxiety during exam time

Written by Aoife Gray


Mention the word exams to any person with an anxiety disorder, and our hearts rise to our throats whilst beating at an uncomfortably rapid pace.
It's not like the normal exam stress most people get, because us anxious folk find that level of nerves normal. I could try and put it in proportions for people who don't have an anxiety disorder, but I honestly think it's almost impossible to imagine if you haven't experienced it yourself.

Personally, I find exams extremely difficult. From class tests to state exams, they all cause that little ball of panic inside me to enlarge. So much so, I didn't do the Junior Cert, the first state exam you do in Ireland. Even though I didn't do any exams for a period of my life, the last two years have been a huge learning curve in how to deal with exams. Though these tips might not always be easy, as a person with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, I can at least vouch that they work for me.

1. Don't panic about panicking

I find that I get anxious over the thought that I will have a panic attack. Of course, telling a person with anxiety not to worry is like telling a leaf not to be green. It takes a lot of time to be able to step back from anxious thoughts, but if you are already able to separate your anxious thoughts from realistic ones, this is one anxious thought to discard.

2. Separate anxious thoughts from rational ones

If you are unable to do so, it's vital that you learn. It can take a long time, but it's necessary. Take an anxious thought before your exams. For example: I'm going to fail everything. In reality, that's absurd! You haven't sat in classes for years to know nothing. You haven't done homework for years for none of it to be in your brain. Don't believe everything anxiety tells you, because it's often not true.

3. Balance Your Study

Anxiety affects people's study patterns in polar opposite forms. For the majority of people, from what I can see, avoid the matter completely. I, on the other hand, have a tendency to over study. I worry so much that I don't know anything, I let my time and thoughts be consumed by it. What works for me is studying one subject at a time for about twenty minutes and then taking a break. I do this for about an hour, twice a day. This might not be ideal for you, but it's about not letting work overwhelm you with stress!

4. No charts

I cannot stress this enough. I took what, at the time, I believed was helpful advice. Make a chart, and put a dot on each day you do work. Brilliant, I thought. My competitive side would keep me motivated! I was so wrong. I became so obsessed with keeping the dots going that I pushed myself into fatigue many times. This caused me to miss school, and I didn't learn stuff properly. Again, I did it as fast as possible, just for those damn dots. I didn't take a day of work for nearly five months, which was both anxiety fueled and dangerous. Maybe someone without anxiety would cope better when not having a continuous stream of dots, but my anxiety definitely didn't let me.

5. Don't leave the exam

I was always given the option in school to leave if I was too anxious. Although this was with best intentions, it's the worst thing that any anxiety riddled person can do. If we leave, we are reinforcing to ourselves that the classroom and exam environment is dangerous. The next time we go in, our anxiety is ridiculously heightened as our fight and flight warnings are screaming at us to get out. The more you leave an anxious situation, the more frightened you will become. Then, your thoughts are scrambled and you won't do well in the exam.

6. Don't rush the exam

As much as your anxiety is screaming at you to write as fast as you can, take a step back from it all. Read the questions twice, and read any comprehensions thoroughly. Otherwise, you will make mistakes you will groan at when you see them.

With the mocks coming up, hopefully this will help! I just sat mine, and I'm proud to say that with these techniques, I didn't have a panic attack and did all my exams with my classmates.

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