How to handle exam anxiety

So, let me prefix this with two facts:

  1. My exam days are – thank jeebus – behind me
  2. My mother is a GCSE and A-Level biology teacher, so I know this time of year is hard, and she’s told me her students are suffering (for non-UK readers, these are exams for 16-18 year-olds and they suck)

With that out of the way, let me share with you the single best bit of advice I was given when I was doing my A-Levels:

You need to accept that this time of your life is going to be really unpleasant, and figure out how you’re going to handle it.

I know that a lot of people in your life will try to diminish the pain, the exhaustion, the levels of done you’ll reach during your exams. I don’t want to do that – I want you to know that if you’re suffering, it’s not OK.

It’s not OK that this system exists, that’s making you sick with worry.

It’s not OK that you’re expected to memorise, like a parrot, facts you’ll never need or use.

It’s not OK, the way that some people will try to measure your worth by the outcome of a few summers when you’re at your most psychologically vulnerable and your life is in the biggest upheaval it will ever go through.

You do not deserve to suffer. If exams are giving you panic attacks, if they’re making you depressed, or if you were already those things and you can’t face the prospect of exams, you’re not alone. I see you. I remember how hard it is.

So here’s the first, deeply radical thing I’m going to propose, and it’s straight from my idol, Amanda Palmer:

Just because your grades are bad, it doesn’t mean you’re failing.

There are other ways to succeed, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to hurt any less to struggle, and that’s the awful truth about this time in your life: it’s a dry run for all the crap you’re going to have to handle in the rest of your time on this earth.

If you let it, exam time is a baptism of fire into the world of adulthood, and that’s one of the reasons why it drives me crazy when adults dismiss exam fear and blindly praise people who do brilliantly. People who rock exams are valid, but it’s just as valid to have a brain that works in a completely different way. My darling Cake (so called, if you recall, because she’s so sweet and people get annoyed if I show up without her) struggled with exams in a big way, and it made me miserable to see how it affected her self-worth.

She is brilliant. She’s articulate and her skill with people, her sheer charm, is a weapon that god forbid she ever decides to use for evil. She’s witty and informed and she knows so much – there was just a disconnect between her and the exam board.

Which, I’m beginning to think, is a good way to be. They’re not interested in your creativity. They’re not interested in your wellbeing, those exam people.

So, exams are a dry-run for adulthood. They teach you how to live through extreme boredom, how to pay attention to things that don’t interest you, how to stick to a routine and accept discomfort and exhaustion.

Exams suck. If you accept this fact, and lean into it, you’ll save yourself a world of disappointment. There’ll be times when you can’t watch Netflix or go out for drinks (or whatever the underage legal equivalent is – milkshakes??). There’ll be times when you won’t be able to see your girl/boyfriend, or your friends. Times when you’ll have to spend a weekend – in Summer – indoors and focusing on unbearably dry revision notes.

You’ll come out of it stronger. But if you’re terrified of exams, revision is the easy part.

Here are my top 5 tips for handling exam anxiety:

  1. Be prepared. This might feel like a really annoying place to start, but the simple fact is you’ll feel much more nervous if you’re not ready for an exam. Figure out what revision techniques actually work, and do it with this method: Revise for half an hour, on a single topic, then explain it to a rubber duck. Other animal-shaped objects would work, but the rubber duck is a tool used by coders to figure out where the holes are in their programme. You’ll understand a topic properly if you’re able to digest it, re-phrase it, and teach it to someone else. My tool of choice is to write out my notes, then section-by-section reduce them to a single word or phrase, usually one I’d forget otherwise. So, for example, photosynthesis might become chlorophyll – from that, I have to expand it to a summary of the whole process, then back down again. I use flashcards for this, and talk to myself like a lunatic. Don’t waste time on techniques that don’t work – if it doesn’t pass the rubber duck test, you’ve only lost half an hour. Try again, same topic, different revision method.
  2. Sleep. Everyone will be telling you this, but I literally can’t emphasise it enough. Sleep, every chance you get. Go to bed early. If you need to cram, do it reaaaally early in the morning – it’s very quiet, you’re safe to drink coffee, and by the time the exam gets there you’ve been awake and studying for a few hours straight. If you have a day off, schedule sleep breaks into your revision to give your brain a chance to turn short-term memory into long-term. Do not stay up all night – it’ll kill your ability to think on your feet, and will make you feel like your whole face is made of cotton wool and regret.
  3. Eat. Snack. Snacking helps you think (maybe? It helps me think!) so prepare to be snacky. Carry almonds, cereal bars, and money for frappes. Carry polos and chewing gum and paracetamol. Be prepared to be in the library/revision chamber of your choice for the long haul. If you like to study with friends, say you’ll order a pizza if all of you work until lunchtime. It’s hard to panic when you’re eating – your fight-or-flight reflex literally struggles to work – so plan to eat Malteasers or something just before the exam when everyone else is freaking out.
  4. Be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up if you had a bad exam – on to the next one. Nothing that happens during this time is indicative of your worth as a human – it’s literally just a sign of how well you memorise. If you love iced coffees, get iced coffees. If you love Indian, persuade your parents/friends to order extra garlic naan. Listen to music that keeps you calm (I’d recommend Jean-Yves Thibauldet’s Price & Prejudice). Take frequent breaks to go outside and breathe in the fresh air. Buy new highlighters. You are getting through this, and whatever awaits you on the other side, I can promise you that this time in your life will not define you.
  5. Don’t feed the bad wolf. There’s an old parable, which goes like this: a grandfather tells his grandchild “There are two wolves inside of us, good and bad. The good wolf represents hope, love and positivity. The bad wolf is fear, panic and cruelty.” The child responds: “But which wolf wins?” The grandfather replies: “The one you feed.” If you’re feeling depressed, try not to wallow. Don’t listen to Morrissey after dark. Steer clear of depressing shows, movies, music… anything that could be a trigger. You’ve got enough on your plate without adding to it. Take a hiatus from stressful situations – avoid the mall, public transport, whatever stresses you out and is humanly possible to avoid. And if it all gets too much, go to your local charity shop, buy something porcelain and then go outside and smash it. You will feel 100% better, I promise you.

Nobody said this would be easy, loves, but I was there, and I promise you this: this too shall pass.

Take care of yourself, and let me know how you get on.

With love, always,


Remember to like, share and comment! Is there someone in your life studying for exams?

NB: Please note, I am not a doctor or a mental health professional. This blog is intended as a personal diary, and any advice given is friendly and light-hearted – please do not use it instead of seeking professional help. If you disagree with any advice I give, please let me know. Similarly, if you are offended for any reason, please share and I will take your thoughts into consideration. Finally, if you are having violent or self-harming thoughts please seek medical help as soon as possible.

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