Exam Anxiety: 10 Tips and an "Existential" Strategy

Exam anxiety it decreases concentration, blocks memory, lowers performance, but above all it can really make a student's life emotionally difficult.

Among other things, triggering a fairly typical vicious circle: you are anxious about the exam -> your results get worse -> you become even more anxious -> your results deteriorate further.

The fact that exam anxiety is often talked about inappropriately and with great imprecision contributes to this.

While if, instead of being perpetually worried, we approached it to observe it closely and carefully we would get to know it better, to understand the reasons for it, to defend it and even to appreciate the really interesting origin it has ...

But I'm giving you too much anticipation, we better start from the beginning.

Fear and exam anxiety: the difference

If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.
(Lao Tzu)

Anxiety is the space between 'now' and 'then'.
(Richard Abell)

Imagine these two situations:

1) You are at the appeal of the oral exam….

You are not prepared and they just called your name.

In no more than ten seconds you will be sitting in front of the most terrible professor in the whole university, who, moreover, is in a bad mood that day, you read it in his face.

Your heart rate speeds up, you sweat a little, you want to turn around and go home: in 4 words, you have the classic fear. 

Fear of failure, fear of other people's judgment, fear of not getting a result that you need at that moment.

2) There is a month left before the exam and you are at home preparing yourself.

You continually jump from the slides to the book to the notes, never deciding where and how it is convenient for you to study.

You try to memorize everything, down to the smallest insignificant details, because you are too worried to leave anything behind.

You sleep less and less and you often think that, probably, "I better postpone the exam".

You spend a lot of time on books but you can't concentrate. Then leave the house to distract yourself and you find yourself thinking about books.

On the day of the exam, you decide at the last moment not to go. Or, since it is written and you are very well prepared, go, but half an hour after sitting down to write you still have the half-blank sheet in front of you and you don't remember anything.

Finally, thinking about studying and exams, you often hear an sfeeling of agitation pervasive, indeterminate, unpleasant, which in a thousand ways negatively affects your days.

In this case you then have a particular type of fear that students call exam anxiety *.

Note *: In this context we use the term "anxiety" improperly, referring to disturbances that may be annoying, but not necessarily pathological. Real anxiety, on the other hand, is a disease that must first be treated by contacting a specialized doctor who diagnoses it!

Now, within certain limits, the fear you feel in the first case is normal: there is an imminent danger (the exam, the professor) and you are not prepared to face it.

Indeed, it may be that this fear even helps you a little, thanks to the so-called phenomenon of eustress - lo good stress theorized by endocrinologist Hans Seyle in his general theory of stress.

And usually, exam after exam, you get used to it and it passes.

But that of the second case instead, if you think about it, it's a bit of a strange fear: the danger is far from imminent (in the month that separates you from the exam, anything can actually happen!) and you also have time to prepare yourself to face it.

Yet, day after day, this fear consumes you and there is no way that it will be useful to you in any way.

You call her exam anxiety, but what is it really due to? And here comes the really interesting part ...

Management of exam anxiety and cave brain

Check for exam anxiety in the end it means, as happens on so many other occasions, to control the caveman in us.

Anyone who has bought my books, especially the kata of will, or downloaded my 7-minute technique or read some of my articles on memory - such as the one on visual memory - knows that I am obsessed with ours. reptilian and paleomammalian brains. 

That is, with two segments of the brain which are much older than the cerebral neocortex and which, for this reason, they make us look a lot like the hominids from which we derive.

As sophisticated and incredible as our cerebral cortex is, it must often clash with the two aforementioned gentlemen (on why they rarely get along I will write an article dedicated to the theory of the Triune Brain one day).

And without proper guidance, often loses the comparison.

It did not surprise me at all, therefore, as I delved into exam anxiety a little, to discover in a tasty article by James Clear - which you find linked at the bottom - that even exam anxiety, after all, could have a dealing withand enormous differences between the demands of the primitive world and those of the modern world.


Imagine for a moment that you are a primitive hominid walking in the jungle.

Lightning strikes a tree ten meters from you -> you get scared and run away to find shelter -> find shelter -> once the lightning stops, you are calm within 5 minutes -> you won't worry until the next storm

Suddenly you are in front of a two-meter gorillai -> run away -> if the gorilla does not chase you, after 5 minutes you stop against a tree to rest -> you will not worry anymore until the next gorilla

How is a context of this type different from the current one?

Environment, anxiety and uncertainties

The human brain was born and evolved, for 99.9% of its history, in an environment that the British define as "immediate return"(Immediate gain).

In an environment of this type, characteristic of primitive hunter-gatherers, people are mainly engaged in activities that give immediate results.

The dominant behavior pattern is the following stimulus -> immediate action -> immediate (or almost) result.

That is, for example:

  • I'm hungry -> I pick some fruit -> I eat and I feel better immediately
  • I see a tiger -> I run away -> I run away from him and I feel better immediately

It is therefore an environment in which almost all your choices have an immediate impact on your well-being and therefore, in addition to always knowing why you do things, you also have an immediate reward or punishment. 

In this way you are able to quickly build certainties. A little like what happens to a newborn when he grows up in a healthy and protected environment.

Modern society, on the other hand, works above all with different mechanisms, typical of environments "delayed return”(Delayed gain).

In a delayed return environment, the main focus is on activities in which you have to invest considerable amounts of time and energy before getting results.

And so, for example, when you study for an exam or work on a project or go on a diet:

  • You don't normally do this as a reaction to a strong and immediate stimulus.
  • You don't do it to get a certain short-term benefit, but uncertain and long-term.
  • You don't know immediately if what you are doing is working or not.

You are therefore forced to act and make choices in a psychological situation of great uncertainty, both from the point of view of why and how and of results.

Just to stay on the subject of study (but it also applies to everything else), you can find yourself pestered by questions for which there is not necessarily a right or certain answer.

“Better to prepare two long and difficult exams or 4 short but easy exams? Will studying at university get me the job I want? Will they ask for this part of the book at the exam? "

In your brain, more or less unconsciously, a huge "BOH!" Is drawn at that point, a prelude to exam anxiety.

Because this BOH doesn't like your brain at all, especially its reptilian and premammalian side doesn't like it.

As we have seen, if they saw a crocodile they would certainly not be happy, but at least they would know what to do.

Faced with these long-term questions, however, they do not know which way to turn and so on they send the whole system in pre-alarm. 

Thinking about it though, this model gives us some interesting insights to try overcome exam anxiety. 

But let's go for order.

You will find below a first group of 10 practical tips. 

I called them "practical" because they are relatively simple to follow and are mostly about small positive actions you can take to manage your exam anxiety.

Among them you will find some valid especially during the study period, others instead are specific for the real pre-exam anxiety, the one that grabs you the day or 10 minutes before, and that more correctly should be defined fear of the exam.

After these 10, we will instead see a somewhat particular strategy, more interesting and powerful, and that I defined "existential".

It is built on purpose to please the reptilian brain and premamliano and will allow you a real change of mentality in facing the study and the anxiety that derives from it.

10 practical tips to manage exam anxiety

1. Studies

If the preparation increases, the agitation decreases: it is almost mathematical. Organize the study with a roadmap, so you can start early and can also give yourself breaks to lighten your mind. Committed to don't procrastinate: Studying entire books at the last minute would drive your exam anxiety through the roof.

2. Prepare by priority

If you don't know the most important topic of the exam or you missed a detail from the appendix of the book, there is a big difference in terms of anxiety! Yet even now I see many guys putting everything on the same level. Perhaps because, among the symptoms of exam anxiety, there is precisely the inability to distinguish clearly what is important from what is not.

3. Downloaded.

Not the batteries, but the body: in addition to studying, it is important to foresee moments in which to lower stress thanks tophysical activity.

4. To err is human.

Accept the possibility of failure: a low grade or a failure on an exam does not affect your value as a person. Especially since you will be able to take the test again at the next session. Failure is not the end of the world, quite the opposite! For statistical reasons, Accepting that you fail often can help you graduate earlier, as I tell in my article on why not to postpone exams. 

5. Free yourself from negative thoughts.

And replace them with positive ones, of course. How to do? For example, focus on past successes and your strengths. If necessary, write them and reread them every day to reinforce yours esteem.

6. Meditate.

Meditation relaxes, reduces stress levels and at the same time improves several aspects of academic performance. You don't need hours and hours of practice: do it even just 5 minutes, but every day. So on the fateful day of the interrogation, to check the pre-exam anxiety, just close your eyes a few minutes and you will be perfectly calm.

7. Learn to relax.

Knowing some relaxation techniques is very useful for making you stop sweating and avoiding memory lapses. An example? Breathe in by counting mentally fine to 3 ed out doing the same. Meanwhile, view the numbers as you count and just focus on these simple actions. After a few minutes, you will feel the worry subside and you will be in control of the situation again.

8. Study in company.

Study groups, group review, simulations with the other students of the course: preparing yourself with friends helps ease exam anxiety. The enemy is less ugly when confronted with companions.

9. Sleep.

Not only because being rested helps you to cope better with the busy study days and to reduce stress, but also because during sleep the learned material is reorganized and fixed. If your exam anxiety has altered your sleep / wake rhythm, maybe it's time to talk to your doctor. Sleep well it is one of the biggest investments we can make in ourselves.

10. Establish a pre-exam routine.

Routines and rituals have great calming power. Figure out what works for you: What actions have the power to relax you before an exam? Maybe the night before, instead of coming back, you could enjoy a hot bath with your favorite music playing in the background. Or on the morning of the rehearsal you could have breakfast at the bar with your favorite croissant. Once you understand how to structure your routine, repeat it whenever you are about to take an exam: it will help you to keep anxiety at bay ..

An Existential Strategy to Overcome Exam Anxiety

The advice against exam anxiety that we have just seen, even if in different sauces, can be found in any blog.

As you know, however, I always like to try to find something more than what we normally read around. More effective or more scientific or simpler or more profound or with more sense.

In this case I want to propose a strategy on how I do not say deceive, but at least please the hominid in you, making him relax with something he has been used to for millions of years.

We have seen that one of the problems of a "delayed return" environment is that, instead of living in the present, you dedicate yourself to long-term projects (the exam, the degree, the job, the diet ...) without any kind of intermediate feedback.

How about breaking them up into many parts so that your problem is no longer "the law exam in a month" but "chapter 3 tonight", so as to simulate the "immediate return" that our primitive part likes so much?

First you have to learn to divide the biggest and distant goal into many small goals.

To do this you need a certain skill, because breaking up an exam in a logical and effective way, especially when it is large, is not easy at all. It is no coincidence that, in my ADM study method, I dedicate the entire first part to the creation of the Masterplan. And it is no coincidence that, at first, almost everyone really struggles to do it.

Then, you have to forget you completely of the final goal e just focus on the day what you are experiencing. In this way you detach yourself, in the sense that you put the right emotional distance between yourself and the future problem - that is, the exam - and instead focus on the present.

How is it done in practice?

Through a system that, every evening, sends you to sleep after letting you know if you've spent your day well or badly. In short, an “immediate return” system.

And which consists, simply, inwrite down your goals each day in writing and measure what you've really done each evening. 

In this way:

  • you keep on track towards the ultimate goal
  • and, above all, give concreteness and importance to your daily actions, simulating what happens in an immediate return environment.

It sounds trivial, but in reality every part of what I told you a few lines ago is essential for controlling your exam anxiety.

  • "To list": in a clear and precise way, not so-so, more or less, etc.
  • "In writing": the written form gives solemnity and importance to the moment, and creates something tangible that you can symbolically "tear" at the end of the day. This is why it does not do it on a file, but on a sheet of paper or a post-it
  • "Everyday": if it doesn't become a habit, it doesn't work. And you have to give it some time to work too, let's say 3 weeks. Beware: if you only try it for two to three days or so, it CANNOT work. There is nothing truly transformative that can work in a few days.
  • "The goals of the day": I'm the only thing you need to care about I am THE PRESENT you compare yourself to. Not because the future doesn't exist, but because you took it into account before, when you made your big plan.
  • "And measure every night what you've really done“: Finally here is the immediate gain, what is needed to be able to say“ today I did well, I'm going to sleep peacefully ”.

When you roll up your post-it note every night with the complete list of things you've done in it, you simulate the mood of the primitive man who just escaped the crocodile or who was hungry and had a drink in a more than decent way. nice eaten.

You have indeed obtained an immediate result, the result of the actions made during the day, of which you can immediately measure the success or failure.

Trust me this will be a terrific antidote to exam anxiety.

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