Final exams related anxiety

Final exam period is upon us and with it comes the dreaded pre-exam anxiety experienced by many college students. It is not an issue that we can set aside, as it is the cause of many students who are sufficiently prepared to fail their exams. That is why we bring a series of tips to deal with exam period in the most effective way.

Test de ansiedad: ¿qué nivel estás soportando? - Mente y emociones

What is test anxiety?

Test anxiety is a type of anxiety that is associated with exam periods and causes difficulties in accessing the knowledge already acquired to be able to use it in the exams.

The origin of stress: What causes it?

Take some time to think about the source of your test anxiety, as the causes vary from person to person. Some of the most common causes are:

  • Having a pre-existing tendency to anxiety
  • Lack of adequate preparation or knowledge of study and test preparation techniques
  • Having a perfectionist nature associated with thoughts such as "if it is not an A, it is a failure"
  • Excessive pressure from the environment (parents, academic institution, peer group...)
  • Bad experiences in previous exams
  • Not being in good physical condition or taking medication
  • Poor self-care skills (sleep disruption, poor eating behavior, lack of exercise)
  • Intense fear of failure or the consequences of failing

How to handle it?

Although it may seem paradoxical, a certain amount of anxiety is good and necessary. When we are tense we can perceive, think and act with greater clarity, this being a healthy level of anxiety. However, when anxiety exceeds a certain point, problems arise, as our level of activation exceeds healthy thresholds and this is when performance plummets.

If we were not activated at all, our performance would decline, just as if the optimal levels of activation are exceeded, we would underperform as we suffer exhaustion and emotional stress. The key here is to find a middle ground, a level of activation sufficient to motivate us without reaching hyperactivation.

Tips for managing anxiety:

Know your internal signals: being aware of the physical symptoms that are indicative of anxiety can help us manage it before it manifests uncontrollably.

  1. Physical symptoms: tachycardia, muscle tension, sleep disturbances, intestinal problems, sweating, nausea...
  2. Cognitive symptoms: difficulty in organizing thoughts, mental block, memory lapses, difficulty in reading and comprehension, intrusive thoughts associated with failure...
  3. Behavioral symptoms: changes in eating patterns, agitation, increased consumption of stimulants, impulsive reactions
  4. Emotional symptoms: high irritability and tension, constant nervousness, bad moods for no apparent reason...

Apply strategies to reduce anxiety, at times when you notice the symptoms mentioned above, or before each exam.

  1. Relaxation techniques such as conscious breathing or progressive muscle relaxation
  2. Practice conscious breathing: make sure you are sitting or stretching comfortably and try breathing through your nose, rather than your mouth to slow your breathing down. Breathe in for a count of 4, pause for a moment, then breathe out for a count of 4. Make sure your breathing is smooth, regular and continuous, not erratic. Pay attention to your breath, make sure it is smooth and regular
  3. Expose yourself to anxiety-provoking situations: it may seem that avoiding attending the exam is the only option to reduce anxiety, perhaps for fear of blanking out or making a fool of yourself. By doing this we are not acquiring the necessary coping skills for the rest of the exams. Remember that it is necessary to face the feared situation in order to gradually increase your skills to handle it


Before the exam

Manage time appropriately: divide your day into periods, including the study time and disconnection time needed to be productive.

Set goals and reward yourself for achieving them, e.g., an enjoyable activity once the study goals for the day are met.

Take consistent breaks (every hour minimum) of about 10 minutes to clear your mind and maintain your concentration.

Review the material, actively using your notes including restructuring or summarizing them.

Think about what kind of questions may be asked on the exam.

Seek help from your professors or tutors if you find that a particular topic is getting stuck.

During the exam

Arrive with plenty of time, try to be at the exam site with enough time to choose a seat and feel comfortable. If it is online, prepare adequately the environment in which you are going to take the exam with all the necessary material at hand to avoid unforeseen events.

Read the instructions well at least twice, underlining the most important parts if necessary; this way you will be able to organize your exam time more efficiently.

If you start to feel anxious, stop for 5 minutes to practice some of the relaxation techniques described above. It is better to spend 5 minutes calming down than to try to ignore it and go ahead in bad shape.

Start with the questions you are sure you know how to answer, or the simplest ones, and then move on to the more complicated ones.

Brainstorming: it is often useful to make a small outline to reorganize key ideas and concepts that cannot be missing in the answer. Spend time to reason mentally or on paper what you are going to answer before you start writing.

Do not be in a hurry if you see that others finish before you, go at your own pace.

Leave the last 5 minutes to review, reread, and make sure you have answered everything you wanted to.

Imagine that your body is a car, you wouldn't go on a long trip without gas and with all the warning lights on, would you?


Maria Rubio

Psychologist at SINEWS