5 ways to manage exam-related stress

You may have found this article because exams and coursework deadlines are looming for you. Maybe you have researched exam preparation tips, created a revision schedule, made flashcards and been studying past papers like mad. You are as prepared as you can be, yet you still feel completely overwhelmed and unmotivated. It might be time to review how you are managing your stress levels.


Stress is often perceived as something to be avoided and with good reason. Research has shown that regularly experiencing high stress levels can cause both mental and physical health problems. However, stress has a positive role to play during exam season; that of the motivator. Without the experience of feeling stressed about a forthcoming exam date, there would be no motivation to act and prepare for it. There is a fine balance between being stressed enough to act and being too stressed, which results in overwhelm and can impact concentration levels.

Therefore, managing your stress levels and emotional well-being is just as important in preparing for exams, as revision is. In this article, I’m going to suggest five ways to help manage exam-related stress.

1. Reframe your thoughts

The quality and patterns of your thinking is really important. Your thoughts shape your mindset and form your perception of reality, both can really impact your motivation levels. For the next few days, take some time to notice and reflect on what you’re thinking. Write down any negative or reoccurring thoughts. Capturing your thoughts in this way will give you the opportunity to explore the validity of them. To do this, look for evidence to support your thinking. Consider whether the thought is a fact or an assumption/opinion that you have made. 

Some examples: 

  • If you notice that you are constantly thinking “I can’t do this”, look to your past for times you have thought you couldn’t do something and overcame it. Reframe the thought to: “I’m doing what I can each day.” Reflect on the progress you’re making, rather than focusing on what you haven’t done yet.
  • If you are labelling yourself in your thoughts i.e. “I am a failure”, recognise that this is a prediction you are making about yourself based on a future exam that you haven’t taken yet. Try to extend the same compassion to yourself as you would to a close friend if they were talking about themselves in this way. Reframe this thought to “I am trying.” Make a list of all your past accomplishments and another list of all your failures. Reflect on the failures. Did you learn anything from them? Did they set you on a different path?
  • You might become aware that you are avoiding revising altogether. Reflect on this. It’s common for people to avoid revising as a protection strategy from failure. If the person hasn’t revised and doesn’t do as well as they had hoped in the exam, they can (try to) take comfort in the fact they didn’t try in the first place. This is a sneaky way that fear of failure can manifest. If you recognise this in yourself at this point, you have the power to change the outcome. Soothe yourself. Acknowledge the fear of failure you are experiencing and tell yourself “I’m OK. It’s safe to try.”

2. Manage your expectations

Base your expectations of exam success on predicted grades, past assignments and constructive feedback. If you need a particular grade for the path you have chosen, use this to motivate you, rather than to torture yourself with. If things do not work out as you had hoped, there is always another path you can take.

Your life is more important than exam results, and they do not define you. You are more important.

Study schedules can be a great help in organising your time for revision but accepting they have limitations can be key in managing your stress levels. Accept that it’s possible to underestimate the amount of time a piece of work or revising a topic may take. Accept that you might have to switch to another topic and deviate from the schedule if you are creatively blocked.

Acknowledge how this makes you feel. Express your frustration, anger, agitation and exasperation when this happens (and any other feelings that come up for you). Validate these feelings and find a healthy expression of them. You could try writing them down and then screwing or ripping the paper up, screaming into a pillow or doing something physical to release them. Feelings are felt in our physical body, so releasing them through movement and exercise can be really helpful.

View your revision and work schedules as guides, rather than absolutes. Be willing to adapt and change things around if they are not working for you. Accept how things are, rather than fixating on how you want them to be.

3. Find healthy ways to cope with stress

The feeling of ‘being stressed’ is not a comfortable one. Physically it may tie your stomach in knots and mentally, occupy your thoughts through worry and worst-case scenarios. When something feels uncomfortable, many people will look to avoid, escape from or numb the experience. This can manifest as unhealthy behaviours such as snacking when not hungry, making constant hot drinks, online shopping, TV binge watching or scrolling through social media. In other words, procrastination.

Procrastination is the activity of putting off or avoiding the thing we need to do and choosing to do something more enjoyable. The reward from exam revision comes much later on - gratification can be achieved much more quickly by engaging in something that will provide you with a dopamine hit right now, such as buying something through internet shopping or watching your favourite show.

If you find yourself procrastinating, remind yourself of your long-term goals and imagine yourself achieving them. Put in as much detail as possible to make the imagery feel more realistic. Where will you be? Who will be there? How will you feel?

Sometimes the ways we find to cope can be high-risk behaviours such as over or under-eating, drug use, excessive alcohol use or self-harm. If you are struggling with any of these, please seek professional help from a therapist or GP.

If your way of coping with stress is detrimental to your well-being and unhealthy, then try swapping it for something more healthy. Exercise, yoga, social interaction, meditation and talking about your feelings are some healthy ways you could try to lower your stress levels. But remember, what works is personal to each individual.

High stress levels often result in overwhelming emotions such as sadness, worry, anger and frustration. Writing about them can help. Try the ‘brain dump’ and free write exactly how you are feeling for a set amount of time, then rip the page up afterwards. Screaming into a pillow is also a helpful way of releasing immense emotions. 

4. Understand how motivation works

As human beings, we do not create motivation in our brains. We become motivated to do something by actually starting the activity or task. Therefore, if, when reflecting on your thoughts and behaviours, you find that you are constantly putting things off to another time when you may feel more motivated, understand that this time may never arrive. Instead, you will lose the time waiting for motivation to arrive, only to be left disappointed and potentially more stressed at having even less time before your exam.

If you feel creatively blocked or unmotivated, start by allocating a small amount of time to work on the task. When that time is up, see if you feel compelled to try for a bit longer. Breaking things down to more achievable parts, rather than being overwhelmed by the whole task may result in more motivation. 

Sit with your feelings of frustration. Where do you feel it in your physical body? Breathe into it. Try accepting that this might be how you feel right now, but it doesn’t mean this is it. Notice if you feel any urges to escape from the frustration through numbing or avoiding the feeling. Then stay with it. Your frustration is valid. It deserves the space you are giving it but, like all feelings, it is not permanent. It will pass.

5. Assess your self-care

Understand that taking care of your self-care and physical needs will help you to have an adequate amount of energy to manage stress levels. Good sleep, hydration, nutrition, exercise, putting boundaries in place and social interaction all have important parts to play in our well-being and health. Are you taking care of your needs? 

In conclusion, five ways you can manage your stress levels when approaching exams and deadlines include:

  • Reflecting on and reframing your thoughts.
  • Managing your expectations.
  • Finding healthy ways to cope with stress and seeking support for unhealthy high-risk coping strategies.
  • Understanding how motivation works.
  • Ensuring you are meeting your self-care needs.

Recognising the value of stress as a motivator during exam season provides an opportunity for you to harness its power. Through validating and safely releasing feelings of stress, you may find the balance needed - with stress compelling you to act rather than overwhelming you.

I hope this article has been helpful. If you would like support during exam season, or to work on breaking patterns of unhealthy coping behaviours and thoughts, please email me to book a session.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Leigh-on-Sea SS9 & Leigh-On-Sea SS9
Written by Katy Acton, BA (hons), MBACP Accred. Counsellor and Psychotherapist
Leigh-on-Sea SS9 & Leigh-On-Sea SS9

Katy Acton (BA Hons, MBACP) is an integrative Counsellor and Psychotherapist with a private practice in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex. Katy also works online and by telephone.

Katy has been supporting clients for over 12 years and is particularly experienced in working with bereavement and loss, anxiety, stress and worry and relationships.

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