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Slaying Exam Anxiety: Your Guide to Conquering Anxiety!


With Leaving Cert and Junior Cert fast approaching for a lot of students, it’s a good time to explore exam pressure and the stress and anxiety it can produce.

Exam anxiety is when the exam itself is perceived as a threat.  The mind and body are consumed by this threat, presenting with the very physical symptoms of the “Stress response”.  It is a lot more than simple worry about the paper or the possibility of failure. 

What is the threat that is felt?  It is very subjective, it could be negative self-judgement, been negatively judged by others.  It depends on one’s own attitude towards academia, or the attitude in the home towards academia.  Some could view a B grade as a failure, while to others it could be a resounding success. 

A good tip is to explore where the anxiety is coming from:

  • Examine the beliefs you have about yourself.
  • Challenge the judgements you hold about the importance of the exam.  You are in control of how you cope/respond to the exam pressure.
  • Look at your behaviours in achievement settings.

Today’s modern society is so fast paced, many of us live in a constant state of anxiety without realising.  It is our familiar, being stuck in the stress response.  Unsure if you are suffering from exam anxiety?   If unsure, how do you know to arm yourself with the tools to assist and better manage your anxiety.  Here are some signs and symptoms that accompany exam anxiety:

  • Motivation: Its exhausting and constant exhaustion which in turns leads to disengagement, withdrawal of effort and a disinterest arrives.
  • Cognitive Interference: The frustration is real; it feels like your brain has gone on strike.  Can feel like your brain is resembling a blank screen, brain fog where you can nearly reach the information but its just out of reach and the inability to concentrate.
  • Thoughts: thoughts of overwhelm, lack of control and fear of failure can become intrusive and obsessive almost. 
  • Affect:  The anxiety response to the negative thoughts can trigger panic fear and of course anxiety.
  • Physiology:  All of the above bring on the stress response which causes very physical symptoms such as heart racing, sweating, dizzy spells, nausea, and cramping muscles usually neck and shoulder.

Let’s not confuse exam stress with anxiety.  We all have an element of stress in our lives, a manageable amount can be an incentive to get going.  Stress is a balance between the demands that we have, and our response to those demands.  Exam stress is interpreted as a challenge, it is achievable, and the effort and work will be done to achieve it.  There is the belief that you can meet the demand.   Exam anxiety is one of several emotions that follow on from the threat that I mentioned at the beginning of this article. In this situation the exam is the threat, it is the thought of failure or inability that causes an anxious response.

Next obvious question is how do I help myself; how do I manage my anxiety symptoms?  First thing is to look at your exaggerated thinking.  You need to find ways to control the physical response to your anxiety.  This will allow you to have effective approaches to revision allowing you to manage your exam anxiety.

This is where some Cognitive behavioural intervention comes in, remembering we are all individual, so it can be a case of trial and error.  What works for a friend may not be as effective for you personally.  So be open to trying new ways to manage your anxiety. 

  • Overgeneralisation:  When you have a general conclusion based on a single event, “I’m no good at the subject, I failed my last exam, I will fail this one too”.  Challenge the thought! Remind yourself of times you did pass an exam in the subject, did well on an assignment.  Failing one exam is not the marker for failing them all!
  • Mindreading:  You assume you are now a mind reader and know what others are thinking.  For example, you think your parents will go mental and judge you negatively if you fail.  So, test the theory, ask them, you will most likely be surprised that in fact you do not have the gift of mind reading and that your parents will only be supportive of the hard work you put in and that you are ok.
  • Catastrophising:  When we view one event, for example the failure of the exam, leading to a disastrous outcome, that is maybe possible but highly unlikely.  It’s very important to challenge your thinking in a catastrophic manner.  Explore alternative outcomes or options.  Focus on the possibility of succeeding instead of failing, support yourself instead of criticising yourself.

What to do to prevent or minimise your anxiety:

Our most powerful tool against anxiety and stress is our breath!  Get into the habit of conscious breathing throughout the day.  You want to aim for 4-6 breaths, if possible, for example while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil, sitting at your desk reading.  Inhale deeply through the nose for a count of 4, hold the breath for 4, slowly exhale through the mouth for a count of 6-8 whatever you can manage and repeat 4-6 times.

Muscle relaxation exercises are great also.  Begin at your feet, slowly tense, and release your muscles.  Notice how your body feels when it is tense and the difference when it is relaxed.  Begin with your feet, work your way up to legs, stomach, shoulders, hands, arms, neck, and jaw.

Guided meditations can be helpful to bring relaxation to the mind and help you feel more resilient to take on the challenge of exams.  We have a large selection of guided meditation on we will be posting several stress and anxiety management specifically over the coming weeks.

It is important to think prevention is better than cure when it comes to anxiety.  Practice the above regularly to prevent your anxiety hindering you, as opposed to waiting for your anxiety to disrupt your day to day and then scrambling to decrease it and manage it better.

We will be hosting a support group for leaving cert students beginning Thursday 16th, 23rd and 30th May at 6pm.  There are no wait lists, just register as a user on and then register for the group in advance.  Log on at the designated time and the group will open up.