William Wadsworth

by William Wadsworth

The Cambridge-educated memory psychologist & study coach on a mission to help YOU ace your exams. Helping half a million students in 175+ countries every year to study smarter, not harder. Supercharge your studies today with our time-saving, grade-boosting “genius” study tips sheet.

Studying isn’t always a walk in the park: most of us students have found the going pretty tough at one time or another. But don’t worry: if it’s all getting a bit much, you’re in the right place! We’re standing ready with a hot drink, a cool flannel and a reassuring hug, ready to help you tackle student anxiety and exam stress with a generous helping of powerful student stress management tactics.

Let’s dive in, and see if we can’t bring exam stress to heel for good.


What is anxiety?

An important disclaimer:

I may have a degree in psychology, but I have no clinical qualifications: so none of this should be seen as medical advice. I hope to have collected a pretty interesting list of practical suggestions, with the aim of providing some help and support for anyone struggling with study anxiety, but if you are in any doubt about your symptoms or how you should manage them, talk to your doctor or health professional.

So what is anxiety?

We evolved it as a response to external and internal stressors: it’s a normal and natural part of being a human. When you walk through a wood at night and feel scared, jumpy and on edge, with an elevated heart rate, that’s a healthy reaction from your body to keep you safe. You’re more alert to danger, and readier to respond.

You’ve probably heard of the “flight or fight” response – your body being prepared to either run from danger, or to tackle it head-on. You might be interested to learn there are two more “F” responses: “freeze”, like a rabbit in headlights, or “flop”, becoming suddenly submissive.

Flight, fight, freeze and flop are all healthy responses to physical dangers: a mere blink of an evolutionary eye ago, your body needed to be adapted for hunting down lunch – as well as avoiding being someone else’s!

But a heightened anxiety response over a long time is not ideal, particularly if we need to focus and think. We need to find ways to soothe our body’s response.

Physical symptoms of student anxiety and exam stress
Physical symptoms of anxiety in students

Panic Bear needs to find calm

You don’t have to control your thoughts. You just have to stop letting them control you.

Dan Millman

About half of college students say they felt overwhelmed with anxiety at least once in the last 12 months (APA). So you’re not alone.

A quick note if you’re feeling a bit scared right now: a site called Living Life To The Full – built by doctors, and offering free Cognitive Behavioural Therapy materials to help a range of issues – has a “panic button” on its homepage which takes you through a series of steps to find some instant calm. Or more seriously, if you think you might be a danger to yourself or others, here’s a list of places to get help in your country.

Then when you’re feeling a little steadier, here are some top student stress management tips:

1.       First, I want you to breathe…

… ahhh.

Scientists have shown that the way we think about interplay between mind and body in emotions is often backward: we’d intuitively think we run away from danger because we’re scared of it. In fact, intriguing experiments indicate that we may have got this the wrong way round: the physical reaction comes first (the running away), and the emotional response comes as a reaction to the running. (This may be a simplification: the exact mechanisms for all of this are complex, and the nuances still being debated. No need to write in…)

So trick your brain: make it think it should be calm.

Breathing is a good way to do this.

One breathing exercise I like is “square breathing” – apparently taught in elite armed units, where there is often a need to find calm under conditions of extreme stress:

  • Inhale for 5 counts
  • Hold for 5 counts
  • Exhale for 5 counts
  • Hold for 5 counts

And repeat. “Square” because 4 stages, each of the same length, a bit like the four sides of a square. Breathe slow enough that you feel relaxed, but not out of breath. Depending on your lung capacity, you might want to go for more counts (7 – 8), or fewer.

Regular practice with slow breathing exercises has even been shown (in this case, over a 3-month period) to improve the way your body functions.

2.       Find peace in your pace…

… as you walk it out.

Walking is another good way to trick the brain into thinking that there’s no reason to be afraid. A good walk can have a very soothing effect on the mind and body. There’s something about the combination of light exercise, getting the body moving in calm rhythm, the fresh air and (if you’re lucky enough in where you’re walking) being surrounded by nature of some sort – birds, trees, grass – that helps stress melt away.

And as a side benefit, walking is also said to give you a boost to creativity and problem solving: Charles Darwin apparently nutted out his Theory of Evolution on a series of long walks, and the short walk I take every morning is when I come up with some of my best ideas, or structure my existing thoughts better. There’s good research evidence from Stanford researchers that Darwin and I are not alone in finding that a walk boosts our creativity!

So you’ll not only come back to your desk calmer, but maybe also with fresh ideas and inspiration to bring to your work.

(If you want to dive into walking and creativity in more detail, by the way, the author of the research I referenced has done a great little TED talk on the subject.)

3.       Practise being mindful…

… and learn to quiet your mind.

Mindfulness is the art of being focused in the moment, being able to still the incessant chatter of our brain and have it rest in the present, not ruminate on the past or dream / worry about the future.

A good way to practise mindfulness is meditation: if you’re new to the idea, meditation is not associated with a specific religion, and is increasingly widely practised by high achievers in all walks of life – from businesspeople to athletes – who find meditation brings them more emotional balance, less stress, and more focus, among other things.

You can get started for as little as 5 minutes’ practice a day, which consists of sitting quietly and using exercises to still the mind.

To find out more or begin your meditation journey, there are some good apps you can get started on for free: I’d suggest either Calm, if you want to watch a lake and listen to a female American voice, or Headspace for some uplifting cartoon characters and a male British accent.

4.       Have a calm kit to hand…

… so you’ve got the right antidotes to hand when stress strikes.

You know if you’re someone who struggles with stress: one thing you could consider having prepared in advance is a little box of things that will help steady and soothe you. You could include:

  • Some photos of nice memories / people / places to remind you of the world beyond the library
  • Something soft and furry that you can hold in your hand, if you’re not lucky enough to have a real live pet on standby
  • Something sweet (and chocolatey?) to eat
  • A few bags of your favourite herbal tea
  • Some uplifting / inspirational quotes on cards to remember

5.       Share what’s going on for you…

… because opening up can be really helpful.

Is there a friend or family member who you can off-load to? You’re looking for someone who makes you feel warm and safe, and who will have the time for you when you need it.

You’re trying to find the balance between bottling up and suppressing how you feel (not good) and melting down routinely before the whole world (also not good). Try to regain a feeling of control over your emotions: and talking things through with people you trust can be a good way to cope, allowing you to come to terms with things in a more contained (never suppressed) way.

The purpose of talking isn’t to solve all your problems: a lot of the time, you won’t get many, or even any, solutions from a good conversation about how you’re feeling, but don’t worry. Just the act of talking everything over can be very helpful

If you’re not lucky enough to have someone like that in your life, consider seeking out a listening service: maybe your campus has a counsellor or listening line, or try one of the free, non-judgemental listening lines that exist around the world.

And of course, you may decide you need to take this to its next logical step, and see a professional counsellor or therapist for more specialist support. If you’re not sure where to start, talk to your school / college nurse, or your family doctor.

Panic Bear asks too much from him/herself

I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself

Arianna Huffington

One of the biggest causes of exam stress and student anxiety is expecting too much of yourself.

Strong students often have very high standards for themselves. You have a history of achieving well, perhaps punching above your weight, and, naturally, you push yourself to maintain or even exceed past successes.

Equally, you might feel you’re getting left behind by your classmates, feeling under pressure to catch up. Again, you might push yourself harder and harder to deliver the results you (or others?) expect of you.

A bit of incentive to work is no bad thing in moderation, as part of a balanced lifestyle, but it’s easy to get carried away and let things spin out of control.

6.       Managing expectations on you…

… and cut expectations down to size where you need to.

It’s helpful to take a moment to size up where the expectations are coming from, so you can act accordingly. Here’s a good exercise: write down all the people who have expectations on you (including yourself!), what you think those expectations are, whether you think you can meet them, and, finally, how much you care about what they think.

Here’s what it might look like:

Table to identify whose expectations matter to you, and whether those expectations are realistic
Managing academic expectations on you

Take a critical look at each row of your table:

  • If the expectations are realistic, great.
  • If the expectations are unrealistic but you’ll find it relatively easy not to care what that person thinks, that’s also OK.
  • But where the expectations are unrealistic AND you care about what that person thinks, you’ve got the biggest problems. Mark with a star.

For the starred rows, consider having a conversation with the person in question. Explain the situation – their expectations – and the counterproductive consequences it’s having on you. “I think you want me to achieve [x] and that makes me feel [y], which is making it harder to get my work done”. In my experience, these conversations usually go well: if they care about you and your success, then they will want to do what they can to help.

The worst culprit of all for unrealistic expectations can often be ourselves. If that’s the case, try tips 10-13 about keeping things in perspective, and don’t be afraid to cut your goals down if it will take a weight off your shoulders and let you study in a calmer, more positive frame of mind.

7.       Don’t compare yourself to others…

… no man is an island, but there’s something to be said for becoming one – at least in terms of your study progress – during exam season.

I don’t mean cutting off social ties: I just mean that when you hang out with your course-mates, you don’t let them talk about how many hours of studying everyone is doing, or brag about the progress they’re making, unless you find that sort of thing spurs you on. (Personally, I hated this sort of thing, and come exam time, would actively avoid friends I knew couldn’t help but have these conversations!)

You can still have study groups and collaborate on understanding topics and solving problems, of course: just remember that the only person you should be comparing yourself to is who you were yesterday, or last week, and how you’ve progressed since then.

8.       Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed…

… all you can ask of yourself is that you do your best.

Just as Apathy Bear feels daunted so can’t be bothered to work, Panic Bear can feel overwhelmed and too stressed to work (or can work, but is very unhappy about the process). Many of the solutions to being daunted also work for tackling overwhelm:

  1. Break it down: Focus in on a small area of what you need to achieve, and try to make some tangible progress on that first. Block out the bigger picture for now, it’s not helpful, and zoom in on something that feels manageable.
  2. Have the right goals: and don’t let a mountain-sized goal give you altitude sickness. Check out Tip 5 in Part 1 of the guide for more on setting the right goals: in short, while you want to be stretching yourself, you don’t want to stretch so far that you snap. If your goals are too lofty, consider reigning them in.
  3. Focus on the process not the result: make sure the mini-goals you set each day are 100% in your control to deliver. Think in terms of time you’re going to spend on something, not on what you want to achieve.

9.       And learn the magic word…

…“no!”

It’s natural to want to say yes to everything that comes our way.

Carpe diem!

Live life to the full!

YOLO!

FOMO!

Don’t want to let anyone down-o!

But – oh no! – before you know it, your schedule is rammed, you have too many plates spinning, and things start to get stretched, or even snap.

Be strategic in the invitations you accept, the extra classes you go to, the hobby projects you undertake. Focus on the things you think will either a) have the biggest impact on your long-term life goals or, b) give you the greatest happiness and fulfilment in the here and now.

Less can sometimes be more: better to have a more manageable schedule, do the things on it well, and feel good about life, don’t you think?

Panic Bear can let things get out of perspective

“The difference between a mountain and a molehill is your perspective.”

Al Neuharth

Our next set of student stress management tips are all about keeping things in focus, not letting the way you’re looking at things spin out of control.

Remember:

10.    Your exams only measure a tiny proportion of what makes you amazing…

… as Exam Study Expert readers, you’re all rounded, complicated, messy, unique and brilliant people, with more talents and quirks than I can possibly imagine.

Don’t think for a moment that the results of an exam:

  • Measure your quality as a person (they can’t)
  • Demonstrate your self-worth (they don’t)
  • Define who you are and what you will be (they won’t)

Remember your qualities that have nothing to do with your studies:

  • Your humour and good-naturedness
  • Your kindness and humanity
  • The people you make smile
  • The talents you have on the sports pitch, the stage, the music practice room; in words, in song, or in paint

What’s an exam got on any of that?

11.    Studies are not the only route to success…

I know I asked you to come up with a list of reasons why your studies are super-important when we were trying to vanquish Apathy Bear last time.

But if your bigger problem is with Panic Bear, I’ll let you into a little secret: there are lots of routes to success, happiness and fulfilment, and many of them are not academic.

Entrepreneurship. Creative success. A chance offer via an old contact. Life will throw you its share of opportunity if you keep your mind open to it.

I don’t know what your belief system or life philosophy is, but I’ve found it comforting to feel that everything happens for a reason: if you don’t achieve your study goals, and find yourself on a different path to the one you intended, perhaps there’s something even better down there that you can’t possibly realise yet.

12.    Confront your fears…

… before they confront you.

Legendary author and entrepreneur Tim Ferris teaches an exercise called “fear setting”, which he adapted from even more legendary Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger, and which I’m going to adapt for you again today.

The idea is that we can bring fear to heel by meeting your fears head-on, and carefully rationalising the implications of the outcomes we worry about.

Here’s how my “fear setting for students” version goes.

Take a sheet of paper. You’ll need two columns:

  • Under “feared outcomes” write down all of your worst fears about the consequences of not hitting your study goals
  • Under “what could I do about it”, think through what you’d actually do if that scenario came to pass.

Here’s an example I made up to show you the sort of thing I mean:

Fear setting for students: what consequences am I anxious about, and what I could do about them
Fear setting for students

With a bit of luck, spending some time digging into your fears should reveal that they’re not quite so scary after all – in fact, some outcomes may even have a silver lining.

This technique has been tried and tested over thousands of years, and been found time and time again to be effective by those who use it. So if anxiety is holding you back, I urge you to set aside half an hour to work through this exercise properly.

13.    Have alternative ways to succeed every day…

… so that if one goal isn’t going how you intended, there are others you can still take pride in.

I think there are three main ways to achieve this in studying:

  • Take on multiple topics a day: don’t just do the same thing all day, mix it up and look at different subjects or disciplines. If one’s not going well, hopefully you can still take satisfaction from progress in a different area. And as a side benefit, you might benefit from “interleaving”, the idea that mixing up different topics gives a better outcome than just spending all day on the same topic.
  • Have “process” goals for your studies: like simply sticking to your routine. You may have had a ‘mare of a day trying to get your head round something, or been writing at a painfully slow rate, but at least you can take pride in how you stuck to the schedule and worked for however many hours you’d planned.
  • Have non-study goals altogether: maybe you’ve got a side goal which has to do with advancing your fitness goals, or practising a skill or talent.

Once you’ve diversified your goals, no longer putting all your eggs in one basket, if things aren’t going quite to plan in one area one day, you can still take comfort from the fact that you’re making progress in another area.



Panic Bear forgets to look after him/herself properly

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr

(Thanks Reinhold, I’ve always loved that one…)

Finally, it’s tempting to overlook the need for self-care when you’re worrying about your studies, but as the exam stress level creeps up, it only gets more important that you continue to look after No. 1: that’s you.

14.    Make proper space in your life for quality rest and relaxation time…

… because neither of us is a robot.

You can’t work all day every day for weeks on end without slowing down, or even grinding to a halt altogether. You need to take time out to catch your breath.

And I don’t just mean 10-minute breaks for a cup of tea, or an hour out to grab some lunch, I mean making a deliberate and guilt-free decision to walk away from your desk for an extended period to let your hair down a bit. Maybe give yourself Sundays off, or never work past 6pm, or take 3 afternoons a week out – or all three!

This is your time. Do things that help you let go and refresh you body and soul:

  • Play sport
  • Socialise with friends
  • Go out
  • Make music
  • Worship
  • Walk in nature
  • Exercise
  • Play Fortnite
  • Watch your favourite TV show
  • Go ski-ing (Seriously? You can do that? Can I come?)
  • Read

Make it quality time: if you’re settling down to read or watch TV, plan ahead to make sure it’s a book / show you love. Plan ahead to help with this: pre-record your favourite shows, have a cracking book ready to go on your shelf, or have a date with a friend in the diary.

This is your treat time – enjoy it.

15.    You get out what you put in…

… when it comes to your body, that is.

Make sure you’re doing the right thing in terms of a balanced, nutritious diet: plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, staying well hydrated. You know the drill: but it’s easy for a student under stress to forget to take care of the basics.

In particular, watch for the caffeine: anxiety is essentially a state of heightened arousal, and caffeine only serves to increase that arousal further, which may not be productive. If you’re medicating with caffeine because you’re not sleeping well, try (as best you can) to fix the problem at its source and get a better night’s sleep (see tip 18).

Maintaining a good exercise routine has also been shown to significantly reduce students’ anxiety about upcoming tests, so go get a sweat on! If you’re not a natural athlete, find something you enjoy: a weekly game of badminton, or a swim in a lake, or even a regular hike in the hills.

16.    Celebrate your successes…

… and give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back every day.

If you’re making progress (even – perhaps especially – if it’s not as fast as you’d like) it’s vital you pause from time to time to recognise what you’re achieving:

  • If you have a list of topics to learn, be sure to mark your progress against the list, and enjoy the feeling of gradually working through it all. Keep it glass half-full: don’t get overwhelmed by how much there is to do, focus on where you’ve come from and the fact you’re moving in the right direction.
  • You could say a few congratulatory words to yourself in the mirror when you go to bed, or when you wake up in the morning – and perhaps even include a bit of a pep talk about your plans for the next day. Positive self-talk can feel a bit silly if you’ve never done it before, but many people swear by it.
  • Some people are adopting a regular journaling habit, which includes acknowledging what was achieved in the past day, and setting mini-goals and priorities for the day ahead.

17.    Practise gratefulness…

… for the good things in your life, even (especially) if not everything feels rosy and you’re having a rough time for whatever reason.

Even when life sucks, the act of saying “thank you” and acknowledging what there is to be grateful for is a good way to stay positive.

I know:

When you’re stressed and it feels like the world doesn’t care, it can be difficult to think of things to be thankful for! If it’s difficult to find gratitude, perhaps you’re most in need of trying – maybe you find at least a little comfort in:

  • A particular person
  • A pleasant place
  • A pleasing piece of art or architecture you pass regularly
  • A nearby calming natural space: a tree, a pond, a stream
  • The food you have enjoyed
  • The music you have heard
  • The personal abilities and qualities you quietly know you have

Some people incorporate gratefulness into their daily journaling habit, so they always start or finish the day with a ritual of finding thankfulness, no matter how tough things are getting.

18.    Sleep well – and finish early for the evening…

… to help get a good night’s sleep.

If you’re working right up to bedtime, chances are, you will still be fizzing from your work, and won’t get to sleep for all the study-thoughts buzzing round your brain. Try and knock off at least an hour before you actually want to go to sleep.

If you’ve been operating at high intensity during the day, you might be feeling the need to unwind and decompress, so develop a good night-time routine: take a warm bath, read something restful, listen to some calming tunes, and maybe have soothing hot drink – something without caffeine like herbal tea.

Sleeping well is especially important if you’re trying to learn and memorise: you’ve might have heard we consolidate memories in our sleep, and it’s absolutely true. So, make sure you create the time in your schedule to get a peaceful night, and don’t skip the slumber.


Feeling better?

I hope so. With any luck, you can deploy these student stress management tips to banish the Panic Bear for good – or at least, subdue it for long enough to get some work done.

Wishing you the very best of success in your studies: you’ve got this!


William Wadsworth
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