How to manage exam anxiety

Exam anxiety

It’s that time of year in Singapore, where the O-level exams are fast approaching. I have many parents come to seek support for their children to help manage exam anxiety. A moderate level of exam-related stress is quite common and can actually help with performance. However, it is when it starts to impact negatively that we need to provide support.

What is exam anxiety?

All anxiety starts in the brain with your thoughts and can manifest into physical symptoms. Your thoughts are nothing more than signals traveling through neurons which activate a response in different areas of the brain. If your thoughts perceive something to be a threat (e.g. failing an exam), this triggers the “fight-flight” response in the body. This response is aimed to keep the body safe but is not always helpful when the response is overwhelming. Thoughts involved in exam anxiety are usually related to negative thinking about performance and lead to an unwanted physical reaction.

What to look out for?

Some of the signs to look out for are: difficulty sleeping, heart racing, difficulty breathing, drawing blanks, low mood, loss of appetite, unable to take in new information, increased distractibility, headaches, increased frustration or irritability, tearfulness, and negative thoughts.

Tips to manage exam stress and anxiety:

  • Eat well – too much high sugar or high carbohydrate foods can lead to crashing of energy levels. Encourage healthy snacks and a balanced diet.
  • Ensure adequate sleep – teenagers should be getting 8-10 hours per night.
  • Encourage exercise during exam times – exercise boosts energy levels and reduces stress.
  • Prepare ahead of time – academic stress comes from a feeling of lack of control over the situation. To tackle these problems make a schedule with goals to achieve and managing time accordingly
  • Parents should avoid adding to the pressure – listen, talk about exam nerves, reassure and avoid criticism.
  • Practice – anxiety can be related to not knowing what to expect; use practice exam papers as an opportunity to manage anxiety.
  • Take breaks when studying – researches have shown that the brain requires time to integrate knowledge. If we do not slow the flow of information, our mind becomes saturated at a faster rate than we can store new data. Studying in 20-30 minute sessions will improve processing and recall of information.
  • Maintain a positive attitude – try replacing unhelpful thoughts with more encouraging self-talk.
  • Ensure there is time for relaxation – breathing and mindfulness techniques can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of anxiety.

If your child’s anxiety or low mood is severe, persists, and interferes with their everyday life, it’s a good idea to get some help from a suitably qualified psychologist.

Written by:
Dr. Jennifer Greene

BSc (HONS), DEdChPsy, CPsychol
Consultant Educational & Child Psychologist
SACAC Counselling

Further information and resources:

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Supporting the Individual, and not the Disorder

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder characterised by obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are recurring unwanted and intrusive thoughts, impulses and images that one experiences. Compulsions are repetitive behavioural and mental rituals that one feels compelled to perform. Compulsions are usually performed in response to an obsession, with the intention to reduce anxiety or to avoid a feared outcome. For example, repetitive handwashing in response to thoughts of contamination.

OCD is the third most common mental health condition in Singapore, and runs a chronic course if left untreated. Treatment for OCD usually involves a combination of medication and psychotherapy. People who suffer from OCD are usually aware that their thoughts and behaviours are excessive and irrational, but finds it difficult to control or resist them, leading to increased distress. OCD can dominate one’s life by taking up a lot of time in a person’s day, and affect their abilities to cope with work, school and relationships. For family members, living with a person suffering from OCD can be difficult, demanding and exhausting. It is not uncommon for family and friends to constantly reassure or to become deeply involved in the individual’s rituals. Often, they may also assume responsibility and care for daily activities that the person is unable to undertake.

How can family members or friends be more supportive and helpful to the person who is undergoing treatment for OCD?

  1. Learn more about the condition and treatment. It is easier to be more supportive, understanding and compassionate towards the person, whose behaviours or requests may sometimes come across as demanding or unreasonable.
  1. No one likes seeing a loved one in distress. However, the best way one can help is to assist your loved one resist doing something that relieves the anxiety quickly. In other words, it may be more helpful to agree with your loved one that you would not provide reassurance and help with their compulsions while he or she is working on the OCD.
  1. Be encouraging if setbacks occur. It is not uncommon to have setbacks during and after treatment.
  1. Symptoms of OCD can exacerbate during periods of stress or major life events. During treatment, try to reduce other sources of conflicts and stress as much as possible.
  1. Allow your loved one to maintain some control and predictability over treatment. Encourage him or her to increase the intensity of treatment, but also to respect his or her pace and not force the individual into doing something he or she does not want to.

Sometimes, despite your best effort, supporting your loved one may be challenging and stressful. In this case, seeking avenues of support and caring for yourself will be equally, if not more important.

Written by:                                                                                        Velda Chen
Clinical Psychologist                                                                    SACAC Counselling


Collaborative Family Practice, New Generation Divorce?

We fall in love, fall into marriage and then fall out of love and fall out of marriage. Ending the marriage is always a painful decision often taken after many attempts to make the things work.

The traditional model of filing for a divorce involves one spouse bringing a lawsuit against the other. It is often lengthy, costly and a painful procedure. If children are involved, most of the time, high conflict parents will find it difficult to communicate about the children’s well-being.

This kind of divorce leaves scars that can last a lifetime.

Collaborative Family Practice (CFP) is a process of collaborative divorce in which spouses, their lawyers and other experts sign an agreement to focus on negotiation and settlement rather than litigation. Each spouse hires a specially trained collaborative attorney who advises and assists them in negotiating a settlement agreement. CFP also involves other trained professionals such as mental health and financial experts.

All participants to CFP are members of a problem solving team who agree to disclose all information and negotiate in a constructive manner.

The role of the CFP Mental Health Professional is to help clients’ relationship to transition from spouses to former spouses, empower them to clearly articulate their experience, and help them see destructive communication patterns. Also they help defuse tension between parents dealing with children’s’ issues and create an appropriate parenting plan instead, and if needed, they talk to the children and share their concern.

The CFP Financial Specialist provides info to help improve spouses’ financial management or planning skills and generates workable options for the family in transition.

CFP process cuts down on the conflict and expense of divorce, negotiates a settlement that works for both spouses, and encourages the parties to develop a relationship of trust for their future parenting by directly involving them in negotiations based on interest and not positions.

However if spouses fail to reach an agreement, the litigation process will start in which the lawyers will be disqualified from representing the parties.

In Singapore, members of SMC- Singapore Mediation Centre’s panel of CFP Lawyers are practising family lawyers. For more information, please contact SMC.

For more information about the role of SMC – CFP therapists, feel free to contact Sanaa Lundgren at

Written by:                                                                                                                Sanaa Lundgren
Collaborative Family Practitioner (SMC)                                                  SACAC Counselling