Oxford Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

April Blog

Stressing Out About Exams?

15-04-2015 Oxford CBT Exam Stress
Exam Stress

Stressing out about exams? How to spot exam stress and what to do about it.

Just like other important events, exams can be anxiety-provoking and stressful for everyone. What should you look out for if you – or your son/daughter – is taking exams? How do you know if they’re too stressed? And what should you do about it?


Dodson Curve

Stress is a normal reaction to demanding situations. If we never felt stressed we’d probably never get around to doing anything – we’d feel bored and listless all the time. A little bit of stress is no bad thing; it can motivate you to get on with revision and to ask for help if you need it. You need some stress to be productive. But too much stress can get in the way of productivity.

Signs of Exam Anxiety

  • Difficulty getting or staying asleep
  • Feeling so stressed out you can’t get started with your work
  • Feeling tense, on edge, or keyed up all the time
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Constant tiredness
  • Feeling irritable, snappy, or angry
  • Feeling down or hopeless
  • Losing interest or pleasure in things
  • Feeling panicky; heart racing, sweaty, shaky


  1. Make a plan - Have a rough timetable for revision so that you’ve covered most of the things you need to, and try to stick to this plan. Don’t expect yourself to sit and study for hours at a time, take regular, short breaks roughly every 30-40 minutes. Just get up and stretch, grab a glass of water/ cup of tea, or pop out for a breath of fresh air.
  2. Go for good enough - Watch out for perfectionism, it can get in the way. You can end up paralysed by it, procrastinating and avoiding. You don’t have to do everything perfectly or know every detail before you move on. In fact, you can’t know everything. The key is to get started and just know enough. Speak to yourself kindly rather than making harsh judgements. Think about how you would encourage a friend if they were under stress, and apply that to yourself.
  3. Avoid avoidance! - Be aware of how you procrastinate. Do you tidy your room, do chores, or get distracted by social media? Try not logging on to Facebook/Twitter or turn your phone off for a couple of hours. Get the work done first and reward yourself with treats afterwards.
  4. Eat well - Have healthy, balanced meals, including protein, wholemeal carbs, and fruit and veg. Sugary food may perk you up for a while but you’ll soon have a sugar crash and feel tired and stressed. Stay hydrated by sipping water through the day. Avoid alcohol and too much caffeine.
  5. Sleep Well - Sleep is important – there’s no point staying up all night to revise, your brain needs to rest too. Stick to a regular routine of 8-9 hours a night. If you’re having difficulty sleeping, try to leave time for winding down, e.g. have a bath and a hot milky drink before bed, and avoid using computers/tablets/phone screens late at night as they are stimulating to the brain.
  6. Exercise - Physical activity and fresh air can help wake you up, keep you alert, and improve concentration and focus. A short, brisk walk round the block will do. It can help burn off a bit of anxiety and make you more productive.
  7. Keep things in perspective - Exams are an opportunity, yes. But they’re not the be-all and end-all. There is life after exams. You’ll probably be fine, and you can always make a Plan B if you need to. There are other aspects of your life, like hobbies, family, friends, and skills that are equally important in the long term.
  8. Don't get caught up with worrying - Don’t keep comparing with your friends. We all prepare in different ways and it’ll just stress you out to hear who else has gone through old biology exam questions, written quadratic equations on their mirror, or memorised sections of Chaucer. Similarly, there’s no point going over exam papers afterwards in your mind; it’s too late to change your answers, so start focussing on the next thing instead.
  9. Offer support, not more pressure - If you’re supporting your son/daughter/sibling through exams, try not to add to the stress. Remember to be supportive and understanding rather than critical. Reassure them that they’ll be ok and the results of this test aren’t the end of the world. Maybe you can let other things (like a messy bedroom) go for the time being. You can help them structure in down-time at the end of the day, create a quiet environment for working, and organising little treats and rewards. Keep rewards small and often, and base them on the work that goes in, not the results that come out.
  10. Get Help - Remember that Oxford CBT can help. We offer evidence-based treatments for anxiety, stress, depression, and perfectionism. We can help support individuals or family members during exam stress. Get in touch to arrange an appointment.

For help with exam stress or test stress contact Oxford CBT.