how to manage anxiety and cope with exam pressure

Exams can be an overwhelming experience, but with the right strategies, you can overcome anxiety and perform at your best. Discover practical tips to manage exam stress...

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Exams are never an enjoyable experience. Whether you’re at secondary school, university or taking a further qualification in the world of work, exam stress is, unfortunately, very common. 

It's normal to experience feelings of anxiety and tension when exam season approaches. Young people especially face fears of failing. While it's natural and rather admirable to want to perform well, however, having anxious and tense thoughts that make it hard to function and perform at your best. 

If you're finding it difficult to stay calm or are worried that your stress is negatively affecting your ability to revise or concentrate, there are several courses of action you can take. Effective exam stress management mechanisms will enhance your academic performance and contribute to a more balanced and fulfilling student life. 

In this article, we'll share the best tips for coping with exam pressure, so that you can deal with the matter proactively before it becomes unmanageable exam stress.  

But before we jump in, it's imperative to identify signs of exam stress. 

how does exam stress feel? 

Sometimes, a little stress or small amount of pressure can be motivating to get through our tasks. However, coping with exam stress can quickly get overwhelming and cause strain on our emotional and physical wellbeing. 

Here are some of the signs of exam stress to look out for: 

  • Struggling to fall asleep 
  • Difficulty in concentrating 
  • Not participating in social activities 
  • Mood swings 
  • Negative thoughts about yourself 
  • Feelings of anxiety and tension 
  • Going blank in the exam hall 

If you feel emotionally drained, or can't stop worrying about your upcoming exams, it may be time to look for practical tips to help you manage your anxiety. 

what are the 4 symptoms of exam anxiety? 

Exam or test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety - and it can affect anyone at any age, even if they're well prepared for the exam they're about to take.  It is important to understand that not everyone copes with exam anxiety in the same manner. Stress affects our bodies in more ways than one. 

If you are unsure if your impending exams are affecting you physically, watch out for these symptoms: 

  • Headaches or feeling lightheaded 
  • Racing heartbeat or shortness of breath 
  • Digestive problems such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea 
  • Excessive sweating

how to manage exam stress 

Before you find things becoming unmanageable, take a step back and re-examine how you manage stress during exams. When you get stressed, your body’s cortisol levels increase, which can impede your brain function - making exam success more difficult to achieve. 

We have some tips for you to try so that you can approach your next exam in a healthier and more relaxed manner. 

1. organise your study plan 

A revision schedule can help organise and prioritise your studies. It works like a checklist that keeps track of your progress, ensuring that you don’t get overwhelmed. Having a structure can aid in effective time management and you will be able to give more time to topics that make you feel anxious. 

Stress often stems from feeling unprepared, so drawing a plan will break down your course load into smaller and more digestible chunks. If you schedule well in advance, your tests won’t seem as daunting. 

Allocate specific time blocks for each subject based on your capabilities and concentration levels. Don’t forget to include breaks to prevent burnout and ensure a balance between subjects to maintain focus. 

Read more on how to create a study schedule here

2.  do a mock test 

During exam time, you will be aiming for certain grades. If you find yourself experiencing stress and nervousness, attempt a mock test. It is a great tool to overcome exam stress. When you practise, you will be able to identify areas that you can focus on, making you a better learner. Looking at past papers can be beneficial in understanding new approaches to tough questions. 

As a bonus, if you do well, you'll have concrete evidence to help belief in yourself. You can even ask a member of your study group to do a few mock exam papers along with you so that you are not alone in this journey. 

3. get a good night’s sleep 

When it comes to exam anxiety management, nothing is quite as beneficial as getting adequate sleep. Our bodies need sleep to stay healthy and function properly. In fact, sleep is proven to help lower cortisol levels

While you might feel like sleep is counterproductive as it takes time away from studying, taking time to calm down will help your brain function better - meaning you'll be working more productively. Winding down after a long study session will help you strike a much-needed balance between your academics and personal life. 

4. prioritise your mental health 

Prioritising your mental health is key to avoiding worry, negative thoughts and even feeling physically drained. There are several things that you can try to ensure that you are not compromising on your mental wellbeing. Talk to your friends or a trusted family member, eat healthy food, drink lots of water and make time for your favourite activities. 

Give exercise a try too. It might seem like a big undertaking when you’re already feeling stressed, but it's associated with being better able to cope with stress. This is partly because exercising will boost your endorphins, which studies show is a stressbuster. 

5. try out relaxation techniques 

If getting a full 8-hours sleep or exercising feels like too much of a challenge, you can start by prioritising regular breaks during study sessions to prevent burnout. Try breathing exercises or mindful meditation to reduce anxiety. 

That's not the only way you can effectively promote relaxation, though: creative activities and even spending time with animals have been proven to help. A study on the effect of therapy dog sessions on reducing exam stress found that the sessions had strong immediate effects on students. And in 2023, Cambridge University began to offer students free Lego building and yoga sessions to reduce their exam stress. 

Remember, taking care of yourself is crucial for optimal exam performance, so don't hesitate to seek support from friends, family, or professionals if needed.  

6. put things in perspective 

Exam stress can often come about because we are being too hard on ourselves. Try to look at the bigger picture and ask yourself if this exam will be as scary when you look back from the future. 

Remember that you have your whole life ahead of you and one test cannot determine its course. No matter what happens, it is helpful to realise that there is always a way forward. 

You will also find that when you put things in perspective, you will be kinder to yourself. It is not only important to understand our capabilities and limitations but also to be accepting of them. By doing so, you’ll be able to see a stark difference in your mental health. 

Read more: Why self-compassion boosts our mental wellbeing 

how common is exam anxiety? 

Dealing with looming deadlines and exam timetables isn't fun for anyone. Feeling emotional due to exam pressure has increased rapidly in recent years - in fact, studies show that 75% of students either suffer from anxiety-related symptoms or are diagnosed with anxiety around exam season. 

This has led to more students seeking help. In fact, last year there was a 10% increase in the number of calls made to Childline about exam stress. The trend in increasing calls to mental health charities has led to national headlines saying exam stress is getting worse

This isn't necessarily true, however - it could be simply that these figures reflect an increase in willingness to seek help. If you feel stressed about exams, speak to a teacher or course leader to get more tips of improving your academic performance. Speak to a family member or friends, or even a mental health professional about your concerns and take time for self-care. While you are not alone in facing this pressure, exam stress doesn't have to be debilitating.  

putting pressure on yourself as an accountant 

We understand how taxing it is for young students to manage an immense course load and multiple exams. It is especially hard when you’re simultaneously working in a firm where you have a long list of tasks. Accountancy exams are known to be difficult, and it is natural for you to want to push yourself to excel at both your work and exams. And you’re not alone - it is common for accounting students to find materials difficult as they have to juggle work, studies and social life.  

Taking exams is a real concern for ACA students with restrictions on time and added pressure to pass them to move to the next stage of their career. This might cause you to put additional pressure on yourself. However, you might find that your anxiety can become unmanageable if you don’t find effective stress management techniques. 

If you are an accounting student dealing with excessive exam stress and unmanageable workloads, here are a few tips that you can try: 

prioritise effectively 

You may be well-versed in one subject and need to devote some more attention to another. Come up with a plan to organise your to-do list and prioritise different subjects by taking work, social commitments and health into account. This works better when you start at least a few months before your exams. 

communicate at work 

Don’t hesitate to speak to your manager about your upcoming exams. Keeping them informed about your requirements is a good way for them to find ways to support your schedule. If you find yourself getting too overwhelmed, they can help reallocate work to help you focus on your studies. 

try new study techniques 

Sometimes a change in the way we study can help us retain more information. You can try new study environments or buddy up with a friend or fellow student to alleviate exam stress. 

prioritise a healthy lifestyle 

If you are struggling with exam stress, eating well and exercising can help you feel calmer. Researchers found that a healthy lifestyle can help accountants cope with stress. Things like a good sleep schedule, reduced alcohol consumption, and regular exercise have their benefits. 

seek support 

You don’t have to go through this journey alone. Talk to your peers, colleagues or anyone else that you trust if you feel stressed. They may be able to offer support and advice. 

We are aware of how tough is to balance exams with a demanding job at an accounting firm. It is okay to reach out if you feel like you are unable to cope with the stress that exam time is causing. Our ACA student support section offers services to help you with issues related to your financial, mental and physical health. 

how we can help you

At caba, we understand how stressful and taxing it can be for an ACA student. Sometimes, it can be too much to handle everything on your own. If you think you may need support for your mental, physical or financial health, please don’t hesitate to seek out our services.

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We support past and present members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW), ACA students, ICAEW staff members, and the family and carers of members and students. 

  1. No matter where your career takes you, past and present members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England Wales (ICAEW) are eligible for caba’s services for life, even if you change your career and leave accountancy 
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