Managing exam anxiety

Dealing with exam stress- female student studying.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month in the UK and, for many students, it’s also the start of exams and a period of significant mental health challenges.

This blog post explains what exam-related anxiety is and why it happens, and also offers tips for coping with stress and sources of further help and information.

What is exam anxiety?

Exam anxiety can be defined as a form of performance anxiety that occurs before and during examinations and assessments and also when waiting for results.

Symptoms include butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat and feelings of panic.

For some students, it can also affect concentration, give rise to persistent negative thoughts and induce an overwhelming fear of failure.

Although academic anxiety has been reported in primary school children, it is more prevalent as children get older, with students in secondary education and those who move on to higher education more likely to suffer from it (see Mentally Health Schools: Academic and exam stress).

Academic anxiety isn’t just unpleasant: it can be debilitating and hamper a student’s ability to perform to their potential.

Female students are more than twice as likely to experience exam anxiety than male students (22.5% to 10.3%; see Markinstyle 25+ Alarming UK Exam Stress Statistics for 2024).

What triggers exam anxiety?

A lack of preparation, fear of failure and previous poor experiences during exams can all cause exam stress.

Other factors can be self-imposed pressure to get certain grades, and pressure from other people – including parents, carers and teachers – to ‘succeed’.

Problems at home or in relationships with family or friends, or having caring responsibilities can also add extra stress at exam time, according to the mental health charity Mind (see Exam stress – for 11-18 year olds).

What are the signs of exam anxiety?

It isn’t always easy to identify signs of academic stress but, if it’s exam time, then the Mentally Health Schools page on Academic and exam stress suggests the sort of things to look out for in children and young people struggling to cope with the stress include:

  • physical health problems such as stomach aches or headaches;
  • difficulty eating or sleeping normally;
  • mood changes, such as being tearful, angry or withdrawn;
  • a reluctance to attend school or to talk about tests and exams;
  • an obsession with studying.

On its page Exam stress – for 11-18 year olds, the charity Mind notes that young people might:

  • feel exhausted;
  • struggle to concentrate;
  • be easily annoyed, restless, or forgetful;
  • feel they can’t cope
  • struggle to manage day-to-day life; and
  • not do things they usually enjoy.

How can exam stress be managed?

So we know what causes exam anxiety and what to look out for, but how can students, their parents and others try to manage it?

Rather than do nothing and just hope for the best, it’s better to manage academic stress by taking a proactive approach.

For students

Being well prepared will help reduce exam anxiety. Time management is crucial; students should create a study schedule that allocates time for revision and breaks and that avoids last-minute cramming.

Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or engaging in short sessions of mindfulness or meditation can help calm the mind and reduce stress. Regular physical activity, such as walking or yoga, can also help manage anxiety.

Getting support from other people can also help, whether in the form of useful tips and reassurance from teachers, or letting parents know what’s going on so they can, for example, help ensure peace and quiet for studying or make allowances for any stress-related behaviours.

For Parents

Parents can support their children by ensuring they have a quiet and comfortable study space at home, maintaining a routine that includes healthy meals and sufficient sleep, and being available to listen to their children’s concerns without adding pressure.

The NHS website has advice for parent and carers, which also stresses the need to make sure students eat well and get enough sleep, encourages flexibility around issues such as household jobs and untidy bedrooms, and advises that ‘staying calm yourself can help’ (see Help your child beat exam stress).

For educators

Teachers can help by fostering a supportive classroom environment that encourages questions and discussions about exam preparation and anxiety. Adjusting expectations and being transparent about exam formats and expectations can help alleviate stress. Schools should also have resources readily available for stress management and learning support.

Five top tips for coping with exam stress

It’s clear that coping with exam stress can be challenging, but there are practical strategies to help students remain calm and focused, including these five ‘top tips’:

1. Prioritise revision time

Know your exam dates and what topics you need to revise. Create a timetable so that the work is divided into manageable chunks – and give yourself a sense of achievement by ticking off completed topics.

2. Make a revision schedule

Use a to-do list and adopt a daily routine so that your days are organised – remembering to include regular breaks to help you recharge and maintain focus.

3. Exercise and eat properly

Help reduce stress by doing physical exercise and look after your body by eating and drinking sensibly.

4. Get enough sleep

Quality sleep will help improve your memory, so make sure to get enough rest and to avoid last-minute cramming.

5. Ask for support

Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you’re struggling. Talk to someone you trust, whether that’s a family member, a friend or a teacher.

Finally, if you don’t get the outcome you’re hoping for, it’s worth remembering that you, as a person, aren’t defined by exam results and that there is life outside exams – as this page from Young Minds on Exam stress points out in the section on ‘Dealing with disappointment on results day’.


Here at MTS Psychological Health, I am passionate about your mental health. Don’t suffer mental health issues in silence: get in touch and discover how I can help you overcome anxiety and depression, so you can live a better life.