Staying calm during exams

You’ve been working hard  – taking everything in; creating diagrams, flow charts and mind maps; colour-coding your notes; making cue cards. You know your stuff. But once you’re in the room, something changes.

Suddenly, the space where all of that knowledge used to be seems to be empty. ‘Think!’ you shout at your brain; heart thumping, hands trembling and a lump rising in your throat, ‘THINK!’


When we feel anxious about anything, our brain reacts in response to the threat. The sympathetic nervous system takes over the controls, preparing the body for the battle ahead. This is often referred to as ‘fight or flight’.

The heart and respiration (breathing) rates increase, blood vessels in the arms and legs dilate and the digestive system sends extra glucose into the bloodstream, all in preparation to deal with the emergency. This can all happen in the blink of an eye, and without our awareness, until the physical signs are impossible to ignore.

While these are useful responses to immediate physical danger, they do not help us much in an exam. Noticing these symptoms of fight or flight can be cause for further alarm; a pounding heart, for example, is uncomfortable and feels like something is wrong.

Research has found that stress can impair memory retrieval processes, and the action of the sympathetic nervous system can interfere with the brain’s executive function, which include concentration and focus; planning and organising our thoughts; keeping track of what we’re doing; and controlling our emotions.


Mindfulness is the practice of noticing with curiosity and openness, and can allow us to step out of our experience to reduce the experience of feeling overwhelmed. Being well-practiced in mindfulness will help you recognise when you need to put the below tips into place.

Only practicing mindfulness in the context of distress is like only practicing an evacuation when there is a fire; instead, try to find some time every day to train yourself to be mindful. There are some terrific apps like Smiling Mind and Buddhify that you can try.

Being prepared is critical, and being well-practiced in taking tests and exams means that once calm, you have access to your various memory systems and are able to retrieve stored information and solve problems. Doing well in an exam is as much about strategy as it is about knowledge, so make practice exams an important part of your study routine.

Having a relaxed start on the day of your test or exam is important too. Whereas some hormones are released immediately in a stressful situation, giving us that split-second reaction time, the release of cortisol – one of the stress hormones involved in the flight or fight response – peaks 20 minutes after a stressful event.

So make sure you’re up and out of the door on time, without rushing, and avoid last-minute cramming. Trying to take in new information at the same time as you’re attempting to retrieve stored information will create a traffic jam in your mind.

If you’re experiencing that ‘going blank’ feeling during your test or exam, try the following:

Put down your pen:

    • Allowing yourself 30 seconds to calm down now is the best use of your time rather than trying to push yourself through.

Notice what you’re feeling:

    • Take a few seconds to label the feelings you are conscious of. The action of naming emotions can reduce their intensity.

Sit up straight:

    • Having an upright posture allows proper blood flow and expansion of your lungs. It can also help with alertness and gives a sense of preparing to take things on, rather than recoiling from threat.

Take some deep breaths:

    • When we are in fight or flight, our breathing becomes rapid and shallow, which can lead us to feeling light-headed and more distressed. Taking deep breaths can serve a few important functions:
      • A temporary distraction from the thoughts that are fueling the anxiety.
      • A way to help our body take in the necessary amount of oxygen.
      • A way to feed back to our brain, ‘it’s ok, you’ve got this’.

Start simple:

    • Look at the questions on the test or exam that are easiest for you and get them out of the way first. Try to avoid getting so stuck on a difficult question that you don’t get to questions that are easier for you. You can also build your confidence as you go.

If managing stress and anxiety is an issue you would like more support with, please contact your School Psychologists to make an appointment.