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From Fear to Focus: Acknowledging the Reality of Exam Anxiety


Exams have a way of making even the most prepared students feel nervous and anxious. The ticking clock, the pressure to perform, and the fear of failure, can all combine to make even the most confident student feel overwhelmed.

Exam anxiety is a universal experience that affects students of all ages and backgrounds. Understanding its causes and learning how to overcome its hold can enable individuals to face exams with confidence.

Acknowledging the Reality of Exam Anxiety

We will explore strategies for overcoming exam anxiety in part 2 of this series but let us first acknowledge that it is normal and even okay to feel some stress before an exam. It is a sign that you care and that you want to do your best. In this case, what you are experiencing is eustress, a type of stress that is viewed as positive or beneficial. It is what propels us to learn and improve. It is what drives us towards a desired goal, even if getting there is a challenge.

Conversely, the stress associated with taking an exam can be overwhelming. Stress becomes detrimental or distress when we perceive something as a threat or as overly challenging. With distress, your ‘flight’ mechanism starts to kick in, impacting your body and brain. Left uncontrolled, distress can impair cognitive function, memory recall, and decision-making abilities, all of which can affect our performance when taking an exam.

So how can we activate a productive ‘fight’ response that will allow us to focus on doing what we need to do to get that exam successfully behind us, rather than letting the overwhelm or anxiety win.

Giving Fear a Name

How people experience exam anxiety varies from one person and even from one situation to the next. This is because everyone has their own unique beliefs and triggers.

Common contributors to exam anxiety include:

Feeling unprepared: Whether due to procrastination, insufficient study time, or simply the fear of not knowing exactly what content will be covered on the exam, feeling unprepared can lead to stress and anxiety before and during an exam. This anxiety before the exam can lead to a last-minute effort to cram information and can lead to feelings of panic during the exam.

Fear of failure: Whether it is self-imposed or external pressure, the fear of failing to meet expectations and so disappointing yourself or others can create a significant amount of stress. The amount of stress is exacerbated when a job or promotion or contract is contingent on passing the exam. There is also the time and perhaps additional cost associated with having to take the exam again.

While it may seem counterintuitive, fear of success can also lead to anxiety. After passing the exam you may be expected to be your organization’s subject matter expert, or you may be required to take additional exams or take on more advanced projects.

Perfectionism: Some individuals set unrealistically high standards for themselves, believing that anything less than perfection is unacceptable. The relentless pursuit of perfection can lead to excessive worry about making mistakes and can stand in the way of learning from those mistakes.

Negative self-talk: Negative thoughts and self-doubt can undermine confidence and exacerbate exam anxiety. Individuals who constantly tell themselves "I'm going to fail" or "I'm not good at taking tests " can fuel feelings of inadequacy and perfectionism and can even create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

General anxiety:
General (or generalized) anxiety refers to a pervasive feeling of worry, apprehension, or unease that persists across various aspects of life. For individuals with generalized anxiety, having to take an exam can intensify their feelings of worry and distress.

Sound familiar? If you have experienced one or more of these anxiety-inducing contributors you are not alone. To make matters worse, the causes of exam anxiety can be interconnected and may reinforce each other. For example, perfectionistic tendencies often stem from a fear of failure. Fear of failure can lead to procrastination resulting in feeling unprepared. Feeling unprepared can lead to negative self-talk. You get the picture.

Identifying the personal beliefs and behaviors that contribute to exam anxiety is an essential first step. Taking this step allows individuals to cultivate a more positive and empowering mindset and to incorporate strategies that let them tackle exams with confidence.

In part 2 of this series – From Fear to Focus: Strategies for Overcoming Exam Anxiety – we will explore strategies that can be used to overcome exam anxiety, or at least keep it under control.

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