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Exam stress

Exams coming up? Sometimes the pressure of exams may cause you stress. Stress is your response to pressure and, while a small amount of pressure can be useful to keep you focused during exam time, if it becomes too much study can seem impossible.

If you're experiencing exam stress, it's important to remind yourself that this is only a small part of your life, even though it might not feel like it at the time.

What does exam stress feel like?

Symptoms of exam stress may include:

  • losing touch with friends and the activities you enjoy
  • feeling moody, low or overwhelmed
  • having trouble making decisions
  • losing your appetite or over eating
  • sleeping poorly and struggling to get out of bed
  • difficulty getting motivated to start studying
  • tense muscles or headaches
  • clammy hands or feeling butterflies in your stomach
  • a racing heartbeat or feeling sick
  • fidgeting, nail biting or teeth grinding
  • feeling confused, or having your mind going blank during the tests.

These symptoms can interfere with how much you enjoy life, especially around exam times.

Why you experience exam stress

Exam stress is normal and very common. You might experience it because:

  • you are worried about how well you will do in the exam
  • you find it hard to understand what you’re studying
  • you feel unprepared or haven’t had time to study
  • you need to learn and recall a large amount of information for an exam
  • exams always have an element of uncertainty about them
  • you need a particular exam result to gain entry into another course or career path
  • you feel pressure from your family to succeed
  • you’re experiencing stress in another part of your life.

Managing exam stress

Study ideas

  • Have a clean, quiet space to work, with ready access to any materials you need.
  • Find out exactly what the exam involves–are there past exam papers you can look at to help you understand what to expect?
  • Ask your teacher if you’re unsure of what to expect or what will be tested.
  • Create a 'mind map', a diagram to help you visually organise information. Use it to collect ideas and summarise thoughts, and use bright colours to help remember important links.
  • Make a clear plan of what you want to cover in each study period. Break it down into small tasks and work on one task at a time, so it doesn’t feel too overwhelming.
  • Take regular short breaks of about 5 minutes to have a drink or something to eat.
  • Ask a friend or your parents for help. Sometimes it may be useful to have someone hear you summarise points or to practise an oral presentation.

Practical ideas to help with study

  • Go to bed at a reasonable time, eat regularly and make time to have fun and exercise.
  • Cut back on energy drinks, coffee or any other stimulants as these can make you feel agitated; drink water instead.
  • When you eat, relax and allow yourself time rather than carrying on with work.
  • Avoid junk food–it provides a sudden burst of energy which will disappear, leaving you feeling worn out.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet.
  • Reward yourself when you achieve your study goals, such as watching an episode of your favourite TV show or going for a run.
  • Allow yourself time to rest.
  • Stay focused on your study; try not to get distracted.

Ideas for exam day

  • Work out what you need to take with you into your exam the night before and have everything ready–water, calculators, pens, pencils, comfortable clothing etc.
  • Eat a light breakfast–this will help with your energy and concentration.
  • Make sure you know where you are going and how you plan to get there, and don’t forget your travel card. Visit the Translink website to plan your journey and always allow extra time for delays in public transport and traffic.
  • Visit the toilet before your exam starts.
  • If you’re getting anxious just before your exam, focus on your breathing. Breathe in to a count of 3 and then breathe out to a count of 3. Repeat this steadily for a few minutes.
  • On exam day, stay away from people who may be feeling anxious or make unhelpful comments that increase your anxiety.
  • When you first sit down to do your exam, take time to slow your breathing and relax.
  • Read through the exam paper carefully. Underline key words and instructions to ensure you’re answering what is being asked.
  • Work out how long you have for each question or section and stick to it. If you have time at the end you can return to complete unfinished questions.
  • Work on the questions that you find easiest first.
  • Allow time before the end of the exam to re-read answers and make any necessary changes.

Remember when you finish your exam, take time out to relax a bit before you start preparing for the next exam. Do something you enjoy or have a chat with your friends.

Where to get support

Kids Helpline

The Kids Helpline website contains some great tips about exam stress, how to look after yourself, anxiety, how to build resilience, coping with your emotions and more. You can also contact them if you want to talk to someone.

ReachOut

Whether you’re at school, TAFE or university, exam stress or general Year 12 stress can be tough. Balancing study with having a life can be tricky, let alone with having to deal with the stress, anxiety or panic that exams can cause. ReachOut has got you covered with everything from in-depth help on coping with anxiety to tips on how to make your stress work for you. Whether you’ve already sussed out a study timetable or you’re a bit ‘last-minute’, find out how to feel better and study smarter.

Youth beyondblue

The media and those around you can spread a lot of hype and pressure about year 12, but putting things into perspective can help you to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Find out more about surviving year 12.

  • Phone 1300 224 636 (24 hours, 7 days).
  • Chat online (from 3pm to 12 midnight, 7 days).

The Desk

The Desk aims to support Australian tertiary students to achieve mental and physical health and wellbeing by offering free access to online modules, tools, quizzes and advice. It was developed by researchers at the University of Queensland and the Queensland University of Technology.

headspace

To help reduce stress and ensure you’re as organised as you can be, learn more about planning, looking after yourself and staying focused for your exams.

  • headspace has centres located throughout Australia staffed with people who are trained and ready to help. Find a centre.
  • If there isn’t a headspace near you, you can access online chat and telephone support through eheadspace.

Lifeline

Lifeline is a national charity providing everyone in Australia with access to 24 hour crisis support and suicide prevention services.

Suicide Call Back Service

If you’re feeling like everything is really getting you down and are having suicidal thoughts, the Suicide Call Back Service offers you free professional phone and online counselling. Their counsellors have specialist skills to help you work through the pain and distress you may be feeling. The counsellor will help you with goal planning, ensuring your own safety, and help to link you to other services in the community.

  • Phone 1300 659 467 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week).
  • Access online counselling and chat with a counsellor when you’re available.

You can also find more information on our suicide prevention page.

More information