Exam anxiety

Stressed out about exams?

By Rebecca Coxon

You or your child may be approaching the stressful period of SATs , GCSE , A-Levels or University exams, but MentalHealthy are here to give you the low-down on Exam Anxiety and plenty of helpful tips on how to successfully get through the nerve-racking times ahead.

Approximately three million pupils will sit exams this summer, and according to ChildLine’s recent Exam Stress Survey, 96% of the 1300 who completed the survey felt anxious about exams and revision.

What makes students anxious?

63%    Not getting into college / university if you do badly
62%    Fears about sitting the exam
59%    Pressure from parents to do well
56%    Not doing as well as your friends
53%    Not getting a good job after

How do students cope with feelings of anxiety about exams?

53%    Talk to friends
29%    Talk to family
29%     Exercise
17%    Talk to a teacher

Recent ChildLine campaign

Other things that make students anxious about exams include:

  • Fear of failure and letting yourself down.
  • Pressure from teachers to do well. 
  • Being the worst in class and feeling stupid or embarrassed because of it. 
  • Fear of having to move down a grade and being bullied or kicked out.

However a worrying number of those who completed the survey said that they coped with anxiety by smoking, taking drugs and self-harming.

But the good news is that anxiety can be managed and there is plenty of help available if you or your child are feeling overwhelmed.

Here are a few helpful tips from Childline:

  • Gentle exercise. When we get anxious, adrenaline rushes through our bodies to prepare us to either run away or fight the feared object / situation. This causes the physical effects of anxiety such as feeling shaky or light headed. By undertaking regular activities such as walking, going to the gym, running or swimming you can burn off the adrenaline which will reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety.
  • Remember that you are not alone. It can seem scary at first to talk about anxiety, as you might feel like nobody else is feeling this way or would understand. This often makes the anxiety worse.  If you think you might be experiencing anxiety, talking about it with someone you trust can be the next step. Talking about how you are feeling can reduce the pressure of anxiety and stress.
  • Picture your success. By picturing how you would like things to go, can help you feel more positive. For example, try to imagine yourself turning up to an exam feeling confident and relaxed. You turn over your paper, write down what you do know and come away knowing you tried your best on the day. 
  • Exams are not the be all and end all. Exams are important but they are not everything- and they are not the only key to a successful future. It can sometimes feel like the whole of your future depends on what grades you get, but even if you don’t get the results you need or expect, you still have options and can get help with any decisions you have to make.
  • A productive environment. Create a suitable study ambience at home and make sure your study room is well lit and well ventilated.
  • Get enough sleep. Meditate or practise some simple breathing exercises for 15 to 30 minutes before you go to sleep and you can help to improve your sleep cycle. For more advice on how to get a better night’s sleep take a look at our feature on sleep. (LINK)
  • Diet. Paying attention to your diet can help you to improve your mood and help reduce mood swings.
  • Try and eat balanced meals at set times.
  • A healthy diet will provide you with enough strength to successfully deal with stressful situations. Having your breakfast, lunch and dinner at the right times will also help your body to fit into a routine. 

Foods to help alleviate stress before an exam

According to healthmeup.com and ezinearticles.com here are some of the best foods to calm your anxiety during exam period:

  • Milk:  Milk is one of the major sources of calcium. Calcium is a natural stabilizer for the nervous system. Research has proved that when people are under certain pressure, the amount of calcium which is discharged through the urine will increase. 
  • Banana:  Bananas can help the brain produce serotonin. Serotonin can make the mood become stable and happy. Bananas also contain a large amount of potassium, which can keep blood pressure at a normal level. Magnesium contained in banana also has the effect of relieving psychological pressure and easing emotional tension. 
  • Citrus fruits: Eating more foods rich in vitamin C also has the effect of relieving psychological pressure. The main source of vitamin C is fresh fruits and vegetables, including citrus fruits and tomato, which are the best source of vitamin C. 
  • Millet congee: Millet congee contains a variety of amino acids required by the human body. Experts have reported that drinking millet congee often can regulate the endocrine system of human body, as well as relax the nerves. 
  • Whole-wheat bread: Whole-wheat bread contains a variety of amino acids and organic acids, which not only can relieve psychological pressure, but also can ease emotional tension. What's more, it is also rich in vitamin B, which has the effects of maintaining the health of nervous system, eliminating anxiety, and promoting sleep. 
  • Oranges: Studies suggest that when a child is under too much pressure his/her vitamin C levels tend to dip, thus making him/her more vulnerable to illnesses. So, incorporate oranges in their diet. Other than Vitamin C, oranges are a great source of folic acid which is great for physical growth as well.
  • Spinach: Spinach is a rich source of iron and calcium along with vitamin A. Iron in spinach helps in developing a strong immunity and helps in developing social and aids in the formation of haemoglobin and essential enzymes.
  • Water: Water aids digestion and  helps regulate and maintain body temperature. Keeping the body well-hydrated should be a health priority and daily habit whether exams are round the corner or not. When we are stressed, we tend to overlook our water consumption and neglect our health as a result.

Foods to avoid

  • Try to keep away from stimulants like caffeine (coffee and tea) and sugar. If consumed a lot, they can make you feel drowsy and tired. 
  • Avoid junk food. Junk food containing bad carbs and bad fats rate high on the glycemic index scale. This means that they lead to energy 'crashes' if consumed all the time.

“My friends never revise, yet they always do better than me.”

During exam time, it’s easy to start comparing your own revision or performance with that of your friends. Some people in your class might be bragging about how easy they are finding it all whilst you might be struggling. Everyone learns in different ways and you have to find a way that suits you. Some people are more academic than others, but this doesn’t mean your future won’t be successful. Nobody is good at everything. Where some people might fail, you could be the one to shine through and succeed.

See what your school, college or University can do to help

Your school, college or university might have plans in action to help students reduce levels of anxiety during exam periods. For example Dundee University’s Student Activities team have put together a programme of events to help reduce stress levels over the exam period.

According to the University’s website they have planned a series of 'chill out days' which ‘feature a range of activities to help combat tension.’

‘Shiatsu massages from an experienced masseuse are on offer, while staff from the University’s Institute of Sports and Exercise have arranged Equilibrium classes bringing together yoga, tai chi, pilates and other forms of power stretching.’

'We know just how stressful exam time is for students, and so we felt it was important to do something that will help them to relax and not get so worked up that they end up not performing to the best of their potential,' said Sheena Stewart from Student Activities.

Advice for parents

According to the Metro, ChildLine advisers are pleading with parents to go easy on their children and let them off household chores during the summer revision period. 

David Coleman from the Irish Independent insists that ‘Parents must stay calm and confident'.

‘Research demonstrates a very clear link between the level of stress that we experience and our performance at different tasks. That research suggests that we need a little bit of stress to perform well.’

Coleman also highlights how expectations of parents can have differing impacts:

‘If our expectations are too high then they may choose to switch off because they feel they haven't a hope of reaching those expectations.’

‘If our expectations are too low then they may equally feel unmotivated because they believe nobody cares how they do in the exams.’

Finding a balance

Coleman advises of the necessity of finding a balance when encouraging your child to do well and in letting them know what is expected of them:

‘Like in so many parenting situations, then, we must find balance -- between what we expect and what is genuinely attainable for our son or daughter.’

Who else can help with you or your child’s future choices?

• Princes Trust www.princes-trust.org.uk
• The Youth of Today www.theyouthoftoday.org/

Your child can also call ChildLine for free on 0800 1111, 1-2-1 chat or by sending them an email.

Relevant products

Further reading

For more information on Anxiety, please visit:

Fight or Flight Response Explained
Anxiety - What Is Anxiety

Fight or Flight Response Explained
Anxiety Symptoms
Anxiety Disorders
Coping with Anxiety – Anxiety Factors
Generalised Anxiety Disorder GAD
Panic Attacks – Anxiety Attacks
No More Panic
Anxiety Treatment 
Anxiety Management – Managing External Stressors
Anxiety Management – Managing our Response to Stress
Anxiety and Debt
Social Anxiety
Work Related Stress
Anxiety and Substance Abuse

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