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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