Exam Anxiety

dog and glasses for exam anxiety sessions

Exam Anxiety

Do you want to help your child with exam anxiety? I recently sat an exam in my psychotherapy training, and it all came flooding back. The build up to the day itself. The quandary of the night before: should you revise or get an early night? And then, on the day, that awful feeling in your gut, and slightly unreal feeling in your head. I help people with anxiety, but even I was not immune. Do you know why? Because exam anxiety is a normal process, one that’s designed to help us perform well.

Nevertheless, when you are in the midst of it, it can feel quite terrifying. Here are some ways you can help your child. Alternatively, you can book in a chat to dicuss my one to one exam anxiety sessions.

Remember Exam Anxiety is Normal


What is happening is that our flight or fight mechanism is being hi-jacked. Fight or flight is an age-old mechanism which keeps us safe. Once upon a time, if we heard a predator in the bushes, our senses would immediately go on high alert, getting us ready to fight the beast, or run away from it. The looming exams are the predator here, but the problem is that the lead-up to the exam can be weeks if not months, which is a long time to feel like this. For some people, those intense feelings on exam day itself may induce feelings of panic or intense fear. People have been known to run away from examination halls because of this feeling.  So, exam anxiety is normal. However, it would really help if we could control it, rather than let it control us.

Reducing Anxious Feelings in the Weeks Before

What’s important now is to help your child:

Get into a good sleep habit

Worry can really destroy sleep, but you need sleep to help you feel both physically and mentally refreshed.  I would suggest discussing the the following with your child:

  • Going to bed the same time every day and getting up the same time, even on weekends if you have a sleep problem
  • Avoiding screens (including Kindles) for 2 hours before bed
  • Creating a wind-down routine: have a bath or warm shower half an hour before (gives your temperature time to drop), listen to Audible, use candles instead of electric lights, aromatherapy, read a book or listen to relaxing music
  • Using relaxation techniques like 7/11 breathing and progressive relaxation (see below)
  • If you wake up and can’t get back to sleep, get up and do something boring. You do not want your bed to be associated with tossing and turning and staying awake in your head
  • If you do your work on your bed, then create a daytime and night time space. Use cushions, throws, whatever you feel will help you mark the difference.


Get Started


The most anxious times are when you aren’t getting down to your revision. You are left with a guilty, stressful feeling that can make you feel even less like working. So, it’s vital to do something about this. Here’s where you can encourage them to:

First, just do something. Pick up a book and get started. Once you have got started you can take the time to plan your revision time-table, make it fancy with different colours etc., but just get into it to get some momentum. Otherwise, there’s a danger you could get stuck on the planning part

Ask them to think about when they are most alert. Is it evenings, or perhaps first thing in the morning. Use those times wisely.

Encourage them to keep sessions to an hour and twenty mins, maximum. Then have a break.

Layer revision techniques. Don’t just rely on one revision method. They could:

  • Make flashcards
  • Write out notes, using different coloured pens (the use of different colours will help with memory)
  • Set exam questions. This means you have to think like an examiner!
  • If they are an extrovert, you may find group revision sessions useful. Members can take it in turns to explain things to each other, or test each other
  • Record key points and play them back as they fall asleep. Guaranteed to get you off to sleep, but also going into your unconscious
  • Review the same material often to help it go into the long-term memory. Repetition is key


Reduce Anxiety Day to Day


Worrying about results and the potential impact they may have on your life is distracting, but ultimately isn’t going to help. What’s more, the more someone worries, the more REM sleep they will be having during the night (REM sleep discharges our non-discharged worries in the form of our dreams). REM sleep uses up a lot of mental energy, as well as depleting our deep sleep, the sleep we need to feel physically restored. So, if we can reduce the worrying, it will have many positive repercussions.

Ways to help do this are:

Keep a worry diary

Write down worries about the exams, the future etc. within a fifteen minute timeframe once a day (not too close to bedtime). If they start coming up any other time in the day, tell yourself that you will think about them during your journal time.

Use triggers to help you practise 7/11 breathing

This will help you bring overall anxiety levels down. Breathe deeply, right into your abdomen, to a count of seven. Then breathe out slowly, making sure your outbreath is longer than the inbreath, and preferable to a count of 11. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is all about calming us down. You can use triggers like cleaning your teeth, putting on the kettle or even going to the loo, to remind you to do this.

Progressive Relaxation

This can be helpful to get off to sleep. Tense your body up completely, and then let go, enjoying the feeling of tension melt away. You can then focus on your feet, feeling them get heavier and heavier, then your calves and shins and so forth.

Active relaxation

This is better than merely vegging out. It is more restorative. Ecourage your child to take part in:

•A favourite hobby or craft

•Exercise, especially something like yoga or T’ai Chi

•Meeting friends

•Painting or drawing

•Playing a boardgame with family


•Baking cakes

They will also be more likely to get into  “flow” which is an extremely beneficial state of mind where you lose touch of time.

Stay Connected  – Don’t Drop Fun!

Connection and community are vital for our mental health. Someone isolated can drop into having mental health issues in a matter of weeks and studying alone for exams can leave you feeling isolated and disconnected.

Your child may have to alter social plans during exam time, but don’t drop them. Encourage them to see friends for a walk to get exercise in. Tney can also meet online with gaming friends for half an hour. Try and keep interactions to offline though as they will be more beneficial.

On Exam Day

Talk to your child about:

  • Practise the 7/11 breathing technique. This can be standing outside the exam hall, when you take your seat, the moment after you have turned over the exam paper. This will help calm you down and prevent panic setting in
  • If you can’t remember something, move on, and it will more likely than not come back into your brain once you have stopped trying to force it
  • Have a good breakfast that morning, but go easy on the carbs
  • Try not to get involved in other people’s panicking.


I offer exam anxiety sessions that can help anyone struggling with feelings of anxiety and stress around revision and exams. Please contact me to discuss.