It starts before you even get in the room, with a churning feeling in the pit of your stomach. Your mouth becomes increasingly dry, your hands begin to shake, and as you sit down at your exam table in front of the paper you are about to take, you suddenly forget everything you’ve ever learned on the subject.
You are in the throws of a mid-exam anxiety attack, and while it feels as though it might wreck your chances of a high score completely, there are a number of simple psychological techniques that can not only snap you out of flight/fight mode, but actually improve your performance. Here, psychology and education experts tell us their best tips immediately before, during and directly after your exam.
And remember, these techniques can also apply to big presentations, meetings at work and other stressful situations, so read, absorb and be brilliant. You’ve got this!
1. Eat, Even If You Feel Sick The Beforehand
Lucy Parsons, Academic Coach and author of The Ten Step Guide To Acing Every Exam You Ever Take, has some solid advice on avoiding any huge energy landslides mid-exam.
“Eat a healthy, slow energy release breakfast like porridge with fruit or scrambled egg on wholemeal toast. The worst thing in an exam is having your tummy rumble or your blood sugar dip as your brain won’t work properly and you won’t find it as easy to maintain a positive state of mind.”
If you’re really struggling, whip yourself up a smoothie with oats, banana, peanut butter and milk or water and drink it slowly.
2. Stop, Breathe, Centre And Continue
“If you’re feeling nervous or unsettled before or during an exam breathe deeply,” Parsons continues. “This will trick your body into a calmer state of being and help you to get your nerves and anxiety under control. If you can close your eyes while you’re breathing deeply, all the better. Closing your eyes will help you to get centred within yourself.
Sally Heady, a cognitive hypotherapist and expert at tackling anxiety, has another trick up her sleeve.
“My top tip for exam nerves would be to use the ‘7/11 breath’. All you need to do is breathe in for 7 counts and out for 11 counts. It slows your heart rate down and the longer exhale is incredibly calming.”
3. Go Somewhere Else For A Bit
Well, in your head, anyway.
“Remember a time when you felt really confident, or relaxed,” life coach and hypnotherapist Gary Amers advises. “Immerse yourself into the experience, remember what you saw, heard and felt around you. Make the colours brighter, the sounds louder and the pictures bigger to activate the feeling again. Then give that version of you a nickname. Now take that version of you forward throughout your exams.”
Even better, says psychotherapist Bob Bellchambers-Wilson, revisit a moment you were particularly brilliant in a similar situation.
“Before you go into an exam think of either a time when you were either successful in a an exam or test or when you got a good result at something that really pleased you. It doesn’t have to be recent as long as you can recall how it felt. Call it back to memory and think about it in detail, probably more so than you have ever done in the past and make yourself fully aware of just how good you felt at the time. Take note of everything that was around, the sounds, colours, smells. Make that feeling as real and as vivid as possible so that you can recall it easily at will.”
4. Bring A Tennis Ball
David Brudö, CEO of wellbeing app Remente, has this unique idea for calming mid-exam worries:
“If you feel that your hands are shaking, you can try squeezing your thigh muscles, as that can stop the shaking and help you keep calm. Bringing a tennis ball along can also be a good, yet unusual way to relax, as rolling it under your feet will provide both a distraction and a relaxing foot massage.”
5. Don’t Underestimate The Power Of Scent
Charlotte Ferguson-Quilter, the founder of Disciple skincare and an aromatherapist, says gently rubbing essential oils on pulse points on the wrists, behind the ears and the back of your knees can genuinely help to relief anxiety in an exam situation.
“Essential oils have the ability to penetrate into the blood stream and contain powerful adaptogens – a natural substance considered to help the body adapt to stress,” she tells us. “Vetiver has grounding and reassuring properties, often used in trauma helping with calmness and stabilisation. It is also considered a nervous system tonic, decreasing jitteriness and hypersensitivity and is also useful in panic attacks. Ylang ylang helps with courage, optimism and combats fearfulness. It can calm heart agitation and nervous palpitations. Chamomile is a peaceful, calming oil and decreases irritability and overthinking.”
To make yourself a magic calming potion, mix a few drops of each of these with 5ml of a carrier oil, like sweet almond, coconut or grapeseed oil. Then dab away.
Medical Herbalist Katherine Bellchambers MNIMH recommends giving rosemary a go too.
“Put a dab of rosemary essential oil on a tissue and inhale this. Rosemary has been clinically proven to enhance memory and mental acuity. If a student uses it while revising then taking a sniff can help them associate the exam with a relaxed revision and so help them recall the subject that eludes them.”
6. Have A Laugh
Jack Bird, a writer for yoga specialists United Mind, has a unique tip for those feeling particularly nervous before – or even right after – an exam.
“We believe that having a good laugh is a great way to calm the nerves,” he said. “Whether this is just speaking to your friends, or putting on your favourite comedy, laughter is a natural and scientific form of stress relief.”
Probably best not to burst out laughing in the middle of it though.