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Learning at uni: managing anxiety

Most students experience some degree of anxiety some time during their course of study, particularly at exam time. Because anxiety is caused by the way we interpret and react to events, anxiety can be managed by using a combination of three different actions: managing your thoughts, managing your behaviour and managing your physical response to fear.

This workshop:

Key words: anxiety, stress, exam, anxiety audit, relaxation

What causes anxiety?

We often think we become anxious and stressed because of what is happening to us. In fact, anxiety is caused by the way we interpret and react to events. Consider this fight or flight example of anxiety.

The 'fight or flight' example illustrates a realistic alarm reaction. However, humans can also imagine danger. Humans can think that something is going to be very threatening, and this will be enough to prompt the alarm reaction. However, because the danger is only imagined, the body cannot properly deal with the danger by fighting it or running away from it. Instead, the alarm reaction remains, and the sufferer begins to look like an anxious person.

If your anxiety is such that it starts to affect your everyday life, for example your ability to study, or your exam preparation or performance, you could be suffering from excess anxiety and you may need to seek help from your doctor, university counsellor or mentor.

What about exam anxiety?

How does the 'fight or flight' response fit with anxiety about exams? 'Exam anxious' people tell themselves that exams are a danger, and their bodies react. They cannot fight an exam; and most people don't want to run away from it – the consequences are too dramatic! They can, however, change certain thoughts and behaviours so that anxiety does not reach unhealthy levels.

How to manage exam anxiety positively

Exam anxiety can be managed by using a combination of three different actions: challenging and changing your thoughts; changing your behaviour; and changing your physical response to being scared.

  1. Manage your thoughts

Exercise 1: Manage your thoughts

Think about your exams. Imagine them being fairly close. What messages do you give yourself (i.e. your thoughts or self-talk) that could be promoting your exam anxiety?

Here are some common anxiety-producing thoughts about exams.

Click those thoughts that you have experienced, and follow the suggestions to help challenge your anxiety-producing thoughts.

  • I won't know enough to pass.
  • I haven't done enough work.
  • If I fail, my parents/friends/partner will be disappointed.
  • If I fail, I won't be able to face people.
  • If I fail, I won't be able to afford to repeat the semester/year.
  • If I fail, it will prove that I am no good.

Click on some techniques to help you change your negative thoughts into positive ones.

  1. Manage your behaviour

    The best way to minimise anxiety before an exam is to be well prepared – avoid last minute cramming. DO whatever makes you feel you are in control of your study. For example:

  2. Manage your physical responses

    As part of your total management of exam anxiety, you need to manage your physical response to anxiety. When you think you are in danger, the alarm reaction takes over: your heart rate and blood pressure increase; your muscles tense. You can counteract the alarm reaction by teaching your body to relax – to lower your heart rate and blood pressure and relax your muscles and mind.

    There are many ways to relax.

    Click on any of the following techniques for more information:

    • Meditation
    • Relaxation tapes and CDs
    • Centering
    • Massage
    • Yoga
    • Specific home-based activities
    • Positive image rehearsals
NOTE: Remember that the three areas (thoughts, behaviours and physical response) are part of a system. By intervening in one area, the whole system will benefit. Intervening positively in all three areas will speed up your management of exam anxiety.

In the exam - how to manage anxiety

For many of us, panicking in the exam is our worst fear! Panicking in an exam will cause your heart rate to increase; you will begin to sweat; and you will have difficulty recalling information. If you feel this happening, use some calming techniques.

Calming techniques you can use in the exam room

Practise these calming techniques so you can employ them with confidence if you begin to feel anxious in the exam room:

  • Breathe calmly - long, slow deep breaths. Exhale slowly and completely, letting your shoulders relax.
  • Use a relaxation exercise. For example, imagine yourself in a calm and beautiful place. Slowly repeat a calming word until you begin to relax.
  • Sit upright in your chair, grip the seat of the chair and tense all your muscles. Then, let your muscles relax totally, breathing out as you do so.
  • Think positively - tell yourself 'I CAN do it; I AM well prepared'.
  • Don't think about the fear - just concentrate on completing one step at a time.
  • Answer the easiest questions first - this will help build your confidence; or, if you are in the middle of a question, leave the question and come back to it after attempting another question.

Complete an anxiety audit

Everyone experiences anxiety differently.

Exercise 2: Anxiety audit

Print and complete this anxiety audit. It will help you understand your own system so you are better able to keep your anxiety at healthy levels.



Early warning signs of anxiety

What are the first things you notice that prompt you to say: 'I am getting anxious'?

Exercise 3: Early warning signs

Print and complete this activity to identify your early warning signs of anxiety.

Is there a pattern to your early warning signs? Are they mainly in one area? If so, this is the area to begin your positive management strategies.



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