How to Beat Exam Stress

Published: 9 March 2020

‘Strength of mind is exercise, not rest’

Alexander Pope

Your mind is like a computer that runs on automatic pilot for much of the time. That is great when we feel automatically confident and assured in our abilities. Sometimes, however, automatic pilot generates stress, frustration, or anxiety. This can lead us to become stuck in problem thinking, which can undermine our self-belief. At exam time, this can lead to a lot of exam-related stress.

The great news is you are more powerful than you think, and you can do something about it. You can create a successful strategy for sitting exams.

Get on top of exam stress

A skill you can develop is to notice the quality of your thoughts and, if they are not supporting your success, it is time to update your on-board computer, your brain. Just like getting the latest IOS system for your Iphone or updating an app.

Typically, exam stress is connected to feelings of doubt based on previous experiences in your learning that may have undermined your confidence. When you think of things you are confident about, playing sport, dancing, making a good cup of tea, whatever it is, you just know you are good at it. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that self-belief about exams?

Here is your strategy for success:

Get in touch with the big picture

Visualise having accomplished your goal and what it will allow you to do in the future. Be like Muhammad Ali: his words, his internal vision, and feelings about himself absolutely supported his mind-set of success.

“I am the greatest.”


“I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.” – He also convinced himself and he achieved monumental success as a result.


“It’s lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believe in myself.”

Create a positive future history (visualise success)

Many people experience exam anxiety because they are focusing on what they think they can’t do. Focusing on fear and doubt can generate negative feelings which in turn create a limited perspective of our potential and our mind can even present visual images and mental movies of failure.

This creates a false Catch-22.  The images and feelings keep looping and running our emotional state around exams instead of us. Breaking the thought virus, stopping it in its tracks and changing how we would like to think and feel about our potential will improve our ability to succeed in exam situations.

Feel the feelings of success

Start to think about a time when you were calm and confident. Feel those calm, confident feelings grow the more you focus on the pleasant memory. Imagine that you can step into that memory and really feel those calm, confident feelings, and make them stronger and even better.

Hear the words that support you and motivate your ongoing success

Now, keep the good feeling going and hear yourself. Tell yourself how well you are doing, how capable you are, how everything is coming together, and how easy it is to recall the information you need. Keep praising yourself.

Create your movie success – full colour, close-up and surround sound

Create a big, bright picture of you sitting your exam, feeling good, then leaving your exam knowing you did well. Imagine opening your results and getting the marks you need. Focus your thoughts, feelings, and words on success.

The mind can achieve what the mind can believe

  1. Believe in yourself
  2. Check out Harvard University’s Amy Cuddy on how your body language affects your belief. Act as if you believe in yourself and your belief will follow.
  3. Keep your words and internal images aligned and supporting your success
  4. Revise – Use mind maps. Put them on your walls and every night before you go to sleep read one out loud to yourself, make a picture of it in your top left field of vision. The next night focus on another one and load in all your learning.
  5. Sleep well. Neuroscientists tell us that REM sleep will move all your learning into your unconscious mind and help you to recall it, as long as you get 9 hours sleep and study beforehand. REM sleep happens towards the end of your sleep cycle. So even although it might not be your usual habit, get to bed early and get up in time for school. Your brain will be even more helpful in supporting you to pass exams.
  6. Use your “set your intention” smiley to get into the flow before you start studying. Reset it any time during study. Relax your breathing.
  7. Take regular short breaks. Each hour listen to some music for ten minutes or so, have a drink and something to snack on, then return to your next study chunk.
  8. Plan your studying and stick to it, focus one topic at a time.
  9. Take an action every day that supports your revision success

Steps to success

Recognising the negative thoughts that are holding you back, and developing a strategy to avoid this is a great way to combat exam stress.

‘Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in, day out’

Robert Collier
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How to Beat Exam Stress
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How to Beat Exam Stress
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