Exam Anxiety: What It Is and How to Overcome It

Jun 21, 2017

Nerves before taking a test are completely normal: butterflies in your stomach, chewing on your pencil, tapping your feet. Most of the time, once you start the exam those nervous feelings go away. But what if they don’t, or they stop you from performing at your best? You can do several things to help you cope with exam stress.

What is Exam Anxiety?

Anxiousness is a response that can occur before, during, or even after an examination. Anxiety BC defines symptoms as physical (nausea, headaches, racing heartrate, etc.), emotional (crying; laughing; feeling afraid, angry, or helpless; etc.), behavioural (avoidance, fidgeting, pacing, etc.), or cognitive (“going blank”, difficulty focussing, negative self-talk, etc.).

Dealing with Exam Anxiety

One way to feel less anxious before an exam is to prepare for it by setting and following a study schedule. Eating well, exercising, and getting lots of rest are also helpful. You may find it useful to talk to others about their experiences with exams and discuss the strategies they use to prepare for exams. Our previous blog post, “Getting from Now Until the CFE” has additional ideas.

If you find yourself feeling anxious during an exam, try a few focused breaths: Inhale slowly while you count to four, hold your breath while you count to four, then exhale while you count to four. Think about your lungs and diaphragm expanding and contracting. After a few breaths, you should feel calmer.

Another strategy is to develop coping statements to counter negative thoughts. For example, “I’ve passed many exams and completed many assignments. This is just one more to pass.”

Getting Help

Consult your doctor if you find that these techniques are not working for you, and especially if you find that you experience debilitating symptoms related to anxiety or the anxiety affects other areas of your life. Anxiety is often treated through therapy and/or medication and can be managed so that you can move forward with your education.


Anxiety BC provides resources to help develop strategies to cope with exam-related anxiety, including coping statements and meditation. This test anxiety document published by Anxiety BC is a comprehensive resource with practical explanations and worksheets and is the source for many of the ideas shared above. It’s written for high school students, but much of the content is applicable for any exam situation.

Anxiety Canada provides resources and guidance for people with anxiety disorders.