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Exam Stress

  • It’s common to feel a level of worry about an exam, but exam stress can cause physical and emotional strain.


  • If these anxieties are overwhelming you, you can talk to someone about how you feel.


  • Exam stress can come from the pressure to do well, worries about things changing, or uncertainty about the future.

Like it or not, at some point in our lives, we have to take exams. At school, college, uni, even learning to drive – there’s no escaping them. For a select few people it’s no big deal, they even get off on it, but for most of us, exams are stressful.

The pressure to do well in exams can be huge. It can feel as if everything is riding on your results, and that can be hard to cope with.  But stress isn’t all bad. In fact, stress can help to motivate us and raise our game when we’re faced with a challenge. It’s a fine line – too much stress can make you shut down, or cause us to get anxious and tense. 

Just like other types of stress, exam stress can impact your mental wellbeing and make it hard to focus on the task in hand. If you, or someone you know, is finding the stress of exams a bit much, CALM is here to support. You can access our free confidential helpline here. 

No matter what exam you’re taking, your results won’t define you or what happens in the future. While an exam might not go to plan, there’s always ways to move forward with whatever path you’re on.

How does exam stress feel?

Exam stress can feel really isolating, but it’s important to remember you’re not alone. While not everyone will understand exactly how you’re feeling, most people have an idea about how it feels to be really anxious, nervous and worried about an important life event – from driving tests to court cases.  Opening up to a trusted friend or family member is a good way to help release some of the tension you’re feeling.


Stress has different effects on everyone, from trouble sleeping to changes in appetite, here are some of the things you may experience if you’re stressed about exams:

  • Difficulty falling asleep or waking up in the morning
  • Forgetfulness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Not feeling as sociable as you normally do
  • Loss of interest in hobbies or daily activities
  • Feeling anxious or irritable
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mood swings or getting angry quickly.

Some common physical signs of exam stress include:

  • Racing heartbeat
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Blurred vision
  • Aches and pains for no reason
  • Clammy or sweaty palms
  • Digestive problems
  • Dizziness
  • Feeling sick
  • Feeling sleepy
  • Feeling more tired than usual
  • Trembling

Why do people get stressed about exams?

When we’re put under pressure by school, university, work, family, or even ourselves, it’s common to feel stressed. There may be worries about meeting deadlines, getting good grades, or anxieties about the future. Even once you’ve done an exam, the anticipation of receiving the results can make it difficult to switch off. These feelings can quickly build up and get on top of us, making us feel run down or constantly on edge. 

Stress triggers a response in the body known as “fight-or-flight”. That’s when your body believes there is a threat, and reacts by releasing stress hormones. These can make your heart beat faster and increase your blood pressure – resulting in a burst of energy. 

Usually, once a perceived threat has passed our nervous system returns to normal, but when we’re faced with constant stressors we can remain in a state of fight-or-flight. This feeling of extra vigilance can be draining and can have an effect on our physical and emotional health. It’s also why long periods of exams, tests, or training can feel particularly intense and make it hard to switch off. Here are some ways you can help cope with exam stress:

  • Try not to compare yourself to others
  • Set realistic expectations – what is possible, what is out of your control?
  • Try not to think too far into the future
  • Focus on the present 
  • Take regular breaks and schedule things to look forward to
  • Speak to someone about how you’re feeling
  • Stay connected with friends and family
  • Make time for physical exercise
  • Keep your workspace as clear as possible
  • Do activities that help you unwind at the end of the day.

Where can I find help?

  • Talk to CALM from 5pm to midnight every day. Our helpline staff are there to talk and to help you find ways to move forward. Calls and webchats are free, anonymous, non-judgemental and confidential. 
  • Outside of these hours, calls the Samaritans on 116 123 
  • Contact your GP for an appointment (which might be done over the phone or by video – during covid19) 
  • Self-refer yourself to NHS Psychological Therapies here 
  • The Mix

Dealing with exam stress

When deadlines are looming it can feel hard to find down time. But allowing yourself time to relax can actually help you to cope better with exam stress and help you to perform at your best. 

The longer we go without downtime, the harder it can become to think clearly and work at our best – information can be more difficult to take in and things that are usually simple can feel overwhelming. Taking a break might feel like the opposite of what you need, but more often than not, a break allows us to pause, refocus and come back stronger and more energised. Here are some ways you can look after your wellbeing during exams:

  • Make time away from studies to wind down. Take a bath, get out for some fresh air, listen to your favourite music and step away from the text books for a moment. 
  • Give your mind and body time to relax. Whether it’s chatting with friends, having a stretch, or breaking up studying with your favourite TV show. 
  • Try to fit in some exercise each day, as this can help reduce stress and give you a bit of a boost. It doesn’t have to be a marathon – try 10 star jumps, dancing to your favourite tune, kicking a ball around, or a short stretching sequence. 
  • Eat well. Even if you don’t feel like eating, skipping meals means you’ll have less energy and make it harder for you to study or focus. 
  • Stay connected with family and friends. This can help you unwind and let off some steam. 
  • Sleep. Our bodies need sleep to function well. Try to get around 8 hours of sleep if you can. Trouble sleeping? Try giving yourself a wind down period before you hit the hay –  it’ll help your brain get ready for sleep and decrease the likelihood of lying awake for hours worrying.
  • Try to find a balance between downtime and revision. This can help you reset, helping you to work better in the long run. 
  • We know that revision can get a bit intense sometimes, so creating a timetable can make managing things a bit easier. 
  • If you have other friends who are revising, check in on one another – they’re more likely to understand what you’re going through and might appreciate the chat.
  • Your exams and your results won’t define you or what happens in the future, so try not to give yourself a hard time. Whatever happens, there is always a way forward.

Get it off your chest

Ok, so no one can sit the exams for you, but having a chat with family, friends, teachers or lecturers can help to get your worries off your chest and you’re bound to find someone who can relate to what you’re feeling. No matter how much the idea of failing an exam is getting on top of you, don’t sit down and worry on your own.

If you want to talk to someone on the quiet, the CALM helpline and webchat are here to talk through whatever is on your mind.

Talking about exam stress

It can be difficult to talk about exam stress with your friends, family or a medical professional. Here’s some ways you can start a conversation around how you’re feeling: 

“I’m finding my exams stressful. I don’t need you to find a solution, I just want to get it off my chest.” 

“I need to talk – I’ve been struggling with studying and feel a bit overwhelmed.”

“You might have noticed I’ve not been around so much lately. I’ve been finding things difficult, and my exams are getting on top of me.” 


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