Exam stress

Written by Bonnie Gifford
Bonnie Gifford
Hypnotherapy Directory Content Team

Reviewed by Neil Brown
Last updated 22nd April 2024 | Next update due 22nd April 2027

Hypnotherapy can help with coping with exam stress by helping reduce your anxiety and fear of failure, as well as boosting your self-confidence. On this page, we explain more about how you can cope with exam nerves, stress and anxiety, and how hypnotherapy may be able to help you.

Exam stress

We all experience moments of worry, anxiety, stress and overwhelm when it comes to studying and taking exams. Waiting for your results can feel just as overwhelming, as you may feel powerless to change things.

For some people, nerves can set in weeks or even months before their exam. You may experience butterflies in your stomach, sweaty palms, or a racing heart. You may worry that your memory will let you down, or fear you will revise the wrong things. You may have trouble sleeping or eating, as feelings of stress and anxiety grow. Even after exams have passed, you may continue to feel anxious, worried, or even scared about receiving your results.

Award-winning hypnotherapist, Penny Ling, explains more about exam stress and anxiety, and how hypnotherapy can help. 

Feeling stressed or anxious about your exams is normal. Nerves are a natural reaction that many feel helps motivate them and push them to focus on revising. When these feelings become too intense, we can feel overwhelmed, and our performance may suffer. Too much stress and anxiety can hold us back from reaching our true potential.

Exam nerves, stress and anxiety: What’s the difference?

We’ve all heard that some worries around our exams are ‘normal’, but how can we tell when what we are feeling is to be expected, and when it becomes a problem?

Although we often use the terms ‘anxiety’ and ‘nerves’ interchangeably, these can be two very different things. For example, someone experiencing exam nerves may feel worried or anxious when doing certain things like revising. These feelings come and go, and help push them to study more.

In contrast, someone experiencing problem exam anxiety may find that their worries are interfering with day-to-day life. Their worries might interfere with their sleep, persist throughout the day and evening no matter what they are doing, or pop up during unexpected times. This type of chronic anxiety can feel overwhelming and can be detrimental to your studying and overall well-being.

Exam nerves: Signs and symptoms

Just about everyone will experience some level of exam nerves. No matter how much you revise, how well you know the material, or how confident you are in your subject, some level of nerves is natural. Unlike other types of exam worries, feeling nervous doesn’t disrupt your everyday life.

You may experience physical or psychological symptoms of exam nerves, such as:

  • dizziness
  • dry mouth
  • self-doubt
  • sweaty palms

You could feel this way when thinking about your exams, during revision, or while taking a test. But these feelings of nervousness go away once you have gone through the situation, and you still feel able to face similar situations again in the future. Learning healthy coping mechanisms can help you to handle these feelings in the future.

Exam anxiety: Signs and symptoms

Exam anxiety is a more ongoing feeling. If you struggle to feel calm or feel like you are constantly dreading exams, tests, or revision, and these feelings persist in your day-to-day life, disrupting other activities, it could be a sign you are experiencing anxiety.

As well as experiencing the physical and/or psychological symptoms of exam nerves, you may also feel:

  • the need to avoid places or situations that remind you of your upcoming exams or test
  • a suffocating feeling of dread, anxiety, or overwhelm
  • start exhibiting negative coping behaviours

If you're worried anxiety may be becoming overwhelming or affecting other areas of your life, consider speaking with your GP, or someone at school, college or university who can help you to access support. 

Do I have exam nerves or exam anxiety?

While the symptoms of both can be similar, it’s important to consider three major areas:

  1. How long have you felt this way? If you feel like you are constantly worrying about your exams, rather than feeling like this anxiety is coming and going in intensity, it could be a sign of anxiety. If your feelings of worry don’t end when you have finished your exams, it could be a sign of anxiety.
  2. Does how you feel affect what you do? Feeling nervous doesn’t stop you from doing the things that make you feel this way, while anxiety can stop you from doing things you enjoy, decrease your focus, and affect your day-to-day activities.
  3. Can you still focus on things? Nerves may make it hard to focus on a specific thing, while anxiety can make many things feel harder to focus on. 

Exam stress: Signs and symptoms 

Sometimes, the pressure of studying for or sitting exams can cause us to feel stressed. Stress is a natural response to these pressures and, while a small amount can help us to focus, too much can affect our overall health and well-being. 

Signs to look out for can include:

  • feeling low or overwhelmed
  • feeling unable to spend time with friends, family, or doing activities you enjoy
  • trouble sleeping, getting up, or poor quality sleep
  • feeling tense, clammy hands, or butterflies in your stomach
  • trouble sitting still, making decisions, biting your nails, or grinding your teeth
  • losing your appetite or overeating

Over time, exam stress can lead you to feel anxious or depressed. It’s important to recognise if you are feeling stressed and to speak to someone before it can develop into something more serious. 

Who experiences exam stress and anxiety?

Exam worries can affect anyone, at any age. It doesn’t matter how much you have studied, how much experience you have, or how intelligent you are. Anyone can experience nerves, anxiety, or stress when it comes to exams.

Preparing for an exam and completing it is not just about how knowledgeable you are, but also your state of mind. Feeling calm, relaxed, focused and confident when studying and sitting your exam means you will be much more likely to achieve your full potential. While accessing this state of mind is a skill, it can often be learned by implementing new ways of thinking.

How to cope with exam nerves, stress and anxiety

There are many different ways you can manage how you are feeling while studying, preparing for or taking your exams. Here we share some advice and guidance to help you at different stages in your life.

How to cope with exam nerves, stress and anxiety: Children

For children and young people, knowing that there is someone they can talk to about their work and their worries can be a huge help. This could mean talking to a parent or guardian, an older sibling, a classmate, teacher, or tutor. This can help them to keep things in perspective, whilst opening up and better understanding how they are feeling. 

Try not to add any additional pressure while your child is preparing for their exams. Offering support, whilst avoiding criticism can help them feel more able to reach out if they are worried. After their exams are over, encourage them to share what they think has gone well or could have gone better. This can help them to feel more prepared in the future, as well as helping them to move on rather than dwelling on things that cannot be changed. 

Counselling Directory shares free resources to help you support children with anxiety. 

How to cope with GCSE, AS and A-level revision and exam nerves, stress and anxiety

Let your friends, family, or someone you trust (a teacher or family friend) know if you are struggling. When you are feeling anxious or stressed, it may feel overwhelming to you, but may not be as obvious to others. By reaching out, others can offer support, and encouragement, and be there to listen. 

Ask for help. Maybe you need practical support in figuring out the best ways to study, or there’s a subject you are struggling to understand. Or perhaps you aren’t sure how to process how you are feeling, and need support in how to manage these feelings to help you focus or enjoy other areas of your life.

Do your best to be kind to yourself. Self-care is important at any age. Ensuring you are eating a balanced diet, getting at least eight to 10 hours of sleep each night, and exercising can all help to ensure you have enough energy to study and sit your exams. Make sure you are taking time to do other things you enjoy. Exams are important, but they aren’t everything. 

How to cope with university revision and exam nerves, stress and anxiety

Pulling all-nighters may seem like the answer as exams draw closer, but not getting enough sleep, eating badly, or forgoing exercise can leave you feeling run down, sluggish, and less likely to absorb the concepts you are revising. Ensuring you have set yourself realistic goals - and timeframes - can help to avoid this last-minute panic. Studying together with classmates can also help you to feel calmer and more supported, whilst having others on hand who are revising the same materials. Talking through a concept that is giving you issues can help you both to better understand it.

Practising mindful breathing can help you to feel calmer and more present in the moment while creating a self-care routine can be helpful. If you are feeling overwhelmed, speak with a tutor or university counsellor, or reach out to someone you trust can help. Talking through your feelings can help you to recognise areas that are causing the most issues, help you to process thoughts and feelings, as well as to figure out the next steps to finding help and support. 

How to cope with exam, test and revision nerves, stress and anxiety as an adult

Exam nerves and anxiety can hit at any age, and for many different types of tests. From driving test anxiety to career development courses, it’s natural to feel nervous. You can try and:

  • Reduce your caffeine intake. Too much caffeine can make sleeping even trickier and can elevate cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
  • Eat foods that slowly release energy. Avoiding foods high in sugar can help you to avoid energy crashes that can make studying (or taking tests) harder.
  • Burn off nervous energy by staying active.
  • Balance out revision and practice exams with self-care, relaxation, and meditation. Self-hypnosis for anxiety or to boost confidence can both be helpful ways of calming your mind, refocusing unhelpful thoughts, and creating a better mindset.

As one hypnotherapist explains, “The way you feel and behave is based on the prediction pattern you have developed from past exam and test experiences. Your unconscious mind now expects you to feel anxious, and so you do.” Through working with a hypnotherapist, you can challenge your unconscious mind’s expectations, reduce negative emotions attached to previous experiences, and refocus on feelings of calm and confidence. 

How hypnotherapy can help you cope with exam nerves, anxiety and stress

Hypnotherapy is a common method used for helping control exam nerves as it can help boost confidence, promote relaxation, and reduce feelings of anxiety and stress. It may also be able to help you develop the ability to access the calm state of mind needed to sit an exam or cope with a potentially overwhelming situation.

Hypnotherapy can be a great option for children. It teaches them that it is ok to talk openly if you have worries or concerns. This develops a behaviour that allows them to reach out and ask for help if they are struggling. It also provides them with coping mechanisms and builds resilience to support them as they face new issues as they grow. 

- Hypnotherapist Melanie Peak explains more in Child hypnosis: coping with stress, anxiety and worry

The power of suggestion and visualisation techniques can encourage an individual to clear their racing mind and approach the exam with a cool, focused head. Your mind knows the information you need to pass the exam, but when experiencing exam stress or anxiety, your ability to focus and concentrate will suffer. Hypnotherapy can help you recall the information easily and correctly, as well as help restore your self-belief.

Working with a hypnotherapist to learn relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, self-hypnosis, deep breathing exercises, visualisation, and guided meditation can also help you to learn tools you can use both now and in the future.

Does hypnotherapy really work?

Studies have shown that hypnotherapy can be a helpful tool in helping to reduce stress and anxiety. Often used alongside other types of therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), research has suggested that cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy (CBH) can help improve symptoms of anxiety and phobias. Research has also suggested that combining hypnosis with other psychological interventions can be more effective in reducing anxiety than using a single stand-alone treatment. 

It's important to remember that hypnosis and hypnotherapy only work if you want to be hypnotised and are ready to make positive changes. It's important to remember that everyone responds differently to hypnotherapy. Not everyone will get the same results in the same time frame. In order for hypnotherapy to work, you need to have an open mind and be open to change.

What to expect from a hypnotherapy session

Hypnotherapy can be an effective way for many people coping with exam stress to unlearn unhelpful behaviours and learn new, healthier ways of dealing with stress and uncertainty. It's important to remember that we are all different. Some approaches may be more or less helpful for different people. Approaching hypnotherapy with an open mind and the will to make changes is key. 

Hypnotherapists each offer different approaches. You may be offered an initial consultation in person, online or by phone, to discuss what you are hoping to achieve. 

After the initial consultation, your hypnotherapist will begin by helping you to enter a relaxed state of mind. The hypnotherapist may then ask you to focus on the exam. You may also be asked to focus on the physical sensations you feel when stressed, anxious or under pressure. Once you have recognised these feelings, the hypnotherapist will offer calming words and ‘suggestions’.

These suggestions will differ for your individual needs and situation. For example, if your mind goes blank when you enter an exam room, the suggestion may be, “You are in control, you know the information and you can do it.” Or if you are experiencing exam stress during a driving test, the suggestion may be a way of coping, such as “slow your breathing, remain calm and focus.”

The idea behind the suggestion method is that when you start to feel under pressure, overwhelmed or stressed about an upcoming exam, the suggestions and visualisations will enter your conscious mind and help you cope. You may also be taught valuable techniques that can help you relax and remain calm when you start to feel worried.

Hypnotherapy can also be used to overcome the fear of failure. It can encourage you to focus, believe in yourself, increase motivation and boost concentration.

You may find that one session is enough to help you overcome your exam nerves and stress, or you may feel you need more. You will be able to discuss this with your hypnotherapist and work together to decide what techniques and how many sessions will be most effective for you. The hypnotherapist may also offer self-hypnosis techniques for you to practise at home.

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