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Why Am I Anxious About My Exams?

Article by:
Carolyn Ho
MA – Curriculum Teacher Education, Stanford Graduate School of Education
B.Eng (Honours) BA (Honours) Double Degree in Engineering and Economics, Nanyang Technological University

Anxiety problems can wreak havoc on our everyday lives

Anxiety is the evil partner of overthinking

The anxious brain is extra vigilant, always looking out for anything it perceives and imagines to be dangerous or threatening

Anxiety causes us to overthink everything

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Worrying non-stop about who we are, and how we are measuring up to our classmates, cousins, colleagues and the rest of the world.

Imagining scary what-if scenarios about things that can go wrong for ourselves, or our loved ones.

Fear of disappointing those who have invested in us – like our parents and teachers.

Spending too much time thinking about what we should say, should have said, did not say, or did say.

Focusing on our imagined faults and incompetencies.


Some of us have difficulty stopping our negative self-talk.

We have yet found a way to eliminate those thoughts.

It is easy to use an effective thought-stopping technique to overcome our worries and become relaxed.

To stop our negative thoughts, just silently shout to ourselves “Stop” or “Stop thinking about that”.

After the silent shout, either relax ourselves or repeat a positive self-talk statement (some examples can be found below, and you can create your own).

You may have to silently “shout” to yourself several times, if the negative thoughts keep coming back.

After every “shout” use a different relaxation technique or positive self-talk statement.

Thought-stopping works very well, because it interrupts the worry response before it is able to cause high anxiety.

Students who have frequent bouts of test anxiety should practice this technique each time a negative thought comes to mind.


Test anxiety can lead to panic attacks, where the student may tremble, suddenly develop an intense and terrifying fear, have difficulty in breathing, or have extreme emotional discomfort.

Other symptoms include:

  • Sense of impending doom
  • Rapid heartbeat, headaches, stomach aches, nausea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, light-headedness or fainting
  • Feelings of inadequacy and dread
  • Insomnia
  • Negative self-talk and low self-esteem
  • Frustration
  • Excessive anger
  • “Going blank” or “freezing” even though they have studied sufficiently for the test
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Depression


When we are anxious, these thoughts – and more – keeping running through our minds.

Non-stop, endlessly, repeatedly.


Anxiety and overthinking make us tired, and leaves us feeling physically and emotionally unwell.

It is dangerous when we start to believe what we imagine.

After all, if we think it’s real – and because we are thinking about it constantly – it must be real. Right?



It is a process that involves several steps, which are described later in this article.

One of the first steps you can take right now is to slow down your thoughts.

Rather than arguing with your thoughts or obsessing over them, gently shift your attention onto something else, something neutral or pleasant that you enjoy doing.

By thinking about something insignificant, you weaken anxiety’s ability to cause you to overthink everything.


Studies have shown that students with low exam anxiety levels achieve higher scores on multiple choice question exams than those with high anxiety levels.

Inferior performance arises not because of intellectual problems or poor academic preparation.

It is because testing situations create a sense of threat for those experiencing exam anxiety – anxiety resulting from the sense of threat then disrupts our attention and memory functions.

Exam anxiety is a combination of worry, difficulty in focusing, dread, fear of failure, and catastrophizing.

It is a condition in which people feel extreme stress and discomfort before and/or during taking a test.

Students who experience exam anxiety have difficulty with understanding relatively simple instructions, and have trouble organizing or recalling relevant information.

Exam anxiety can be your brain’s way of avoiding any more emotional trauma by simply shutting down when faced with a similar situation.

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Research shows that parental pressure is associated with greater worry, irrelevant thoughts and fear of failure

Anxiety does seem to have some genetic components

People who experience exam anxiety often have parents or siblings who have test anxiety or other types of anxiety

Poor nutrition, an unbalanced diet of excessive sugar and caffeine, anticipations of punishment or loss of status, thyroid issues or hormonal imbalances can contribute to anxiety


Being placed into course above your ability can cause exam anxiety.

Associating grades with personal worth can cause exam anxiety.

Exam anxiety develops from fear of alienation from parents, family, and friends due to poor grades.

Test anxiety can be caused by a teacher embarrassing a student.

Exam anxiety can be caused by timed tests and the fear of not finishing the test, even if one can answer all the questions.

Other causes of exam anxiety may include previous poor test results, procrastination, expectations (too positive or too negative) of the students/parents, time constraints, and difficulty of the task.


  • Obsessive compulsive disorders
  • Perfectionist tendencies and unrealistic expectations
  • Negative self-esteem, self-statements, and criticism
  • Poor motivation or lack of confidence
  • Inadequate study and test-taking skills
  • Childhood trauma


If you know that you should have spent the past weeks preparing for an important exam, but chose to spend most of that time on social media, you are bound to have more than your usual amount of anxiety when you sit down to take the test.


Exam anxiety often develops into a vicious cycle.

After experiencing test anxiety – and/or bad grades – on one test, the student may become so fearful of it happening again that they become more anxious and upset than they would normally (or even than what they experienced in the previous test).

If  the student goes to the exam with the mentality that it will go wrong, he is much more likely to feel anxiety before and during the exam, and this will lead to poor performance in the test.


A little nervousness before an exam is normal and can help sharpen your mind and focus your attention.

But with exam anxiety, feelings of worry and self-doubt can interfere with your test-taking performance and make you miserable.

Test anxiety can affect anyone, whether you’re a primary or secondary school student, a university student, or an employee who has to take tests for career advancement or certification.


We can all have a calmer, clearer mind, and better mental balance by diligently doing all, or any of these:


Fire all the “What-If” thoughts that dare to come to your mind.

In reality, things are NEVER as bad as what we overthink.

If you need to, write down the worst-case scenarios. Next to each item, put a number from 1 (not likely to happen) to 10 (definitely would happen).

Then for the items that you numbered above 8, write down a list of things that you can do, to solve that problem.

Rank the item above 8 only if there is a very realistic chance that it will happen.

Be fair and objective. Do not overthink when you are creating solutions for any dreaded item that you rank above.

This technique helps you better manage your fears and anxieties.


Check your vocabulary for unhealthy words like “hate”, “never”, “ugly”, “unlovable”, “stupid”, and “useless”.

Replace and remember only the opposite of those words.

Thoughts lead to Feelings, which then lead to Behaviors.

Create your own positive cycle.


  • “No matter what I do, I will not pass this subject”
  • “I am no good at Math, so why should I try?”
  • “I cannot remember the answers, or I have no idea how to do the application questions. I am going to fail this test.”
  • “I failed this subject last semester, and I am going to flunk out again this semester”


  • “I failed the subject last semester, but I am now improving my skills to pass this subject”
  • “I went blank on the last test, but I now know how to reduce test anxiety”
  • “I know that with hard work, I will pass Science”
  • “I prepared properly for this test and will do the best I can”
  • “I feel good about myself and my abilities. I am not going to worry about that difficult problem”
  • “I’m going to use all my test time, and will check for careless errors. Even if I don’t get the grade I want on this test, it is not the end of the world”


Each of us have our own ways of studying, and we should experiment with a few different techniques to find out what works best for us.

Most high-performing students make their own study notes by researching important course content, and then summarizing the content onto either their computers/phones, or by writing them down onto exercise books.

Once you have your own condensed study guide material, having one or two pages of crucial content is much less daunting than flipping through 20 pages of notes that you had previously distractedly scribbled during class.


Some students are able to score a strong A when they study 2 or 3 days before an exam

Usually, these students would have prepared their own customized notes, and would have directly or indirectly learned the important content while they were preparing their customized notes

All they then need to do before the exam is to refresh their memory of the key concepts that each chapter covers

In general, most students spend 2 weeks preparing for tests/exams, and up to 6 months preparing for crucial high-stakes national exams

When you give yourself enough time to explore the key concepts, and make relevant notes for yourself, you will be able to understand and remember the content much more effectively


Planning how much time is required for acquisition of new knowledge and syllabus revision, and deciding how you can utilize that time period is a good way to reduce study stress.

Usually, you need to spend more time on certain subjects than others.

It is good therefore to vary your timetable and routine so that you don’t get bored studying a particular chapter.

You can update and adjust the plan regularly, or whenever necessary.


As important as it is to make your own notes and give yourself enough time to study, the best way to prepare is to practice!

Look online, or ask your school teacher or private tutor to give you questions related to your study material

You will be able to find out where are the learning gaps, how to apply the answers to difficult questions, which areas you need more clarification in, and if you have understood the content correctly


To keep your brain and body properly fueled for optimum performance, you need to drink adequate amounts of water in order to avoid fatigue.

Dehydration may affect anxiety in a variety of ways.

One sign is that your body starts to function improperly – hormone distribution is impacted because of poor blood flow, muscles may tense up, and your brain may weaken or change as a result of water loss.

Low-fat, high-protein snacks like grilled chicken will give you energy and keep you focused without causing your energy levels to crash later on.

If you must snack on food and drink that contains fat and sugar, do so moderately.


Make sleep a priority.

Our culture celebrates those who work hard and play hard, but there’s a price.

If you’re irritable, sluggish and drained, chances are you’re sleep-deprived.

Avoid caffeinated drinks, and aim to sleep 8 hours every night.


It is good to incorporate some light exercise into your daily routine to give your mind a chance to focus on something other than schoolwork.

Working out increases the production of endorphins, making you happier and less stressed.


It’s very important that in the morning you’re focusing on waking up both your mind and body so that you’re wholeheartedly ready to take on a major exam.

A great way to do this is to put on music while you’re in the shower and getting ready.

If you have a playlist of your favorite songs, chances are the music will get your body energized and you’ll either sing along with the songs in your head, or out loud.

This allows your brain to start processing information and warms it up to start remembering information.

Having a good start to important days really helps boost your confidence and performance!


As difficult as it might be, don’t talk about the exam with anyone else before you take it.

If you run into a confident classmate who says he or she isn’t worried at all, you might start to feel insecure or unprepared – when you had already actually spent so many days studying hard.

If you speak to a classmate who is even more nervous than you are, what he or she says will only reinforce your fears about the test.

Either way, talking to your classmates will only stress you out, so don’t do it.


It is a good idea to take a few minutes to write down encouraging thoughts before a test.

Examples can be: “I can get an A!” “I prepared well, and I deserve to get good grades”.

Or anything positive, that you prefer.

In your mind, focus on a scene where there is a positive outcome for this exam.

It sounds too simplistic, but positivity can help influence how well you take tests.

Positivity helps flush out feelings of anxiousness before a test, to help you to be able to focus on the material in front of you.


When we are anxious, our breathing becomes shallow, erratic and fast.

Make an effort to breathe slowly and deeply so that our lungs are getting as much air as they should.

Inhale for a (slow) count of four, hold for a count of four, then exhale for a count of four. Let the breath flow in and out effortlessly. Repeat four times.

A steady stream of oxygen to your brain helps you think clearly, and deep breathing calms you down.


Give yourself a pat on the back.

You’ve survived the test, and it’s over.

Now, you have the freedom to concentrate on other things. Whew!

Whatever your favourite activity is, do it and enjoy those hard-earned moments.


What should you do if you know you did your best to prepare, but the grade doesn’t reflect your hard work?

Think of that test as a way to see what you need more help with rather than a judgment on how smart you are.

Maybe you need to look at the way you’re studying, or ask for help in certain areas.

Keep everything in perspective: one bad grade is not the end of the world.


For the most part, anxiety is a condition that comes and goes.

For some, the anxiety never goes away completely. That’s the bad news.

The good news is you can manage the symptoms so they don’t manage you.

It is much easier to control your moods, and just be happier on a day-to-day basis.

In short: everything in life feels easier.

Best of all, you’re harnessing your excess energy to actually get productive things done.

Article written for Star Tutors

Star Tutors
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Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this article are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from Star Tutors or its editors.

All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your own healthcare provider.


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