How To Conquer Test Anxiety and Subdue Exam Panic Attacks

Create a targeted action plan for success on your next big exam

James Davey
Jul 17, 2019 · 28 min read
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Photo by Free-Photos via Pixabay

After you’ve finished reading this article, you’ll have a complete toolset to help you get to work on every one of your exam anxieties and panic points.

I’ve spent the last five years helping students with their exam preparation and performance. With my help, they’ve been able to diagnose and treat their specific exam-related anxiety problems with a custom menu of solutions I’ve provided them to try.

Decoding Your Anxiety
How can I help you?
What triggers anxiety and panic attacks during the exam process?
The Anxiety Management Toolset (Organised by Anxiety/Panic Trigger Statements)
Trigger statement: “There’s too much work to do”
Trigger statement: “Everyone understands it except for me”
Trigger statement: “Another day has passed and I’ve done nothing”
Trigger statement: “I’m revising but nothing’s going in”
Trigger statement: “It’s the day before the exam, I’m panicking”
Trigger statement: “It’s 10 minutes before the exam, I’m panicking”
Trigger statement: “I just can’t concentrate during exams”
Trigger statement: “My mind wanders or goes blank in the exam”
Trigger statement: “I get panic attacks in the exam and can’t do anything so I just leave”
Trigger statement: “My answers were different to what everyone else said they wrote, I just can’t stop thinking about it”
Trigger statement: “I’m nervous for results day and how these results will impact my future”
What We’re Aiming For

Decoding Your Anxiety

The underlying cause of anxiety and panic attacks can be difficult to identify. A combination of cultural, genetic and behavioural factors could be at play, which makes it tricky to prescribe an effective treatment. As a result, one of the most commonly prescribed treatments for anxiety and panic attacks is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

Here’s the National Health Service’s definition of what CBT aims to do:

  • It helps people deal with overwhelming problems in a more positive way by breaking them down into smaller parts.
  • It’s based on the concept that our thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and actions are interconnected.
  • A therapist helps you break down your problems into their separate parts, such as your thoughts, physical feelings, and actions.
  • Your therapist then helps you determine the steps needed to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviour.

Essentially, the CBT process breaks down the thoughts, feelings and actions causing your anxiety and reconfigures them into a more positive pattern.

How can I help you?

I’m not a CBT qualified medic; I’m just an exam coach.

Fortunately, my area of expertise is a little less complex than the multi-faceted human experiences therapists have to decode. The ‘exam experience’, on the other hand, is predictable. Worldwide the set up for exams is similar. You have to jump through the same series of hoops. You need to address a similar set of challenges. By design, the exam process is made to be the same for everyone, so it’s a fair test of academic ability.

In an exam situation, the triggers for anxiety and panic attacks are repetitive. For example, that niggly feeling when another day has passed by and you did less revision than planned, or that sinking feeling in your stomach when you open the exam paper and you don’t know the answer to the first question. These triggers are what cause small anxiety-induced obstacles, ranging from not being able to think straight or mind-blanking within the exam, all the way to feeling completely incapacitated — a full-blown panic attack.

But before I start dishing out the solutions, let’s take a closer look at specific anxiety and panic triggers within the exam process.

What triggers anxiety and panic attacks during the exam process?

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Image by Xavi via Flickr

Below are the key anxiety-inducing statements I regularly see from students via direct messages received on WhatsApp and Snapchat. Do you ever find yourself saying or thinking any of these?

  • “There’s too much work to do”
  • “Everyone understands it except for me”
  • “Another day has passed and I’ve done nothing”
  • “I’m revising [reviewing] but nothing’s going in”
  • “It’s the day before the exam, I’m panicking”
  • “It’s 10 minutes before the exam, I’m panicking”
  • “I just can’t concentrate during exams”
  • “My mind wanders or goes blank in the exam”
  • “I get panic attacks in the exam and can’t do anything so I just leave”
  • “My answers were different to what everyone else said they wrote, I just can’t stop thinking about it”
  • “I’m nervous for results day and how these results will impact my future”

In the contents section at the beginning, I’ve referred to what’s included in this article as a ‘toolset’ deliberately.

Just like any mechanic, electrician or plumber is trained to identify specific problems related to their trade and ‘fix it’ with a specific tool or combination of tools, my intention is for you to be able to do the same with any type of exam-related anxiety or panic you encounter. When the problems are consistent, so are the solutions.

The Anxiety Management Toolset (Organised by Anxiety/Panic Trigger Statements)

When you know what triggers your anxiety about an upcoming exam, you can take specific steps to address that trigger and improve your test performance.

Here is the list of statements associated with each trigger, with recommendations for the tools you can use to feel—and perform—better.

Trigger statement: “There’s too much work to do”

Tool: Break it down, under-allocate an amount of time to do the work, then test yourself.

How to use it:

I’m sure you’ve heard the recommendation to “break down your work into little chunks” before. This will usually be one of the first points made on your average internet listicle. The tool I’m suggesting you use here goes deeper than this. Furthermore, it uses what we know about human psychology to your advantage.

Let’s think about pizza for a minute…

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Image by Steven Guzzardi via Flickr

More specifically, let’s think about what it would be like to do a pizza-eating challenge. I’m talking about the kind you see on YouTube where a person is attempting to munch their way through a margherita the size of a dining table. Even if you slice the thing up, you’ve still got a whacking great pizza staring back at you. Psychologically, it’s daunting.

Let’s consider a different approach… what would happen if you were just to be given slice after slice, without seeing the whole pizza from the outset? Would you stand a better chance of devouring the whole thing?

Science suggests you would.

This hasn’t been proven with pizza—but it has with soup! In the experiment, one group of people were given a normal bowl of soup, and another was given a self-refilling bowl of soup. Neither group was informed about the nature of their bowl of soup. By the end of the experiment, those eating from the self-refilling bowls consumed 73% more soup. Note: the self-refilling bowls were sneakily disguised by running tubes under the table and through the bottom of the bowls. The group who conducted the experiment, The North American Association for the Study of Obesity, also reported subjects eating from self refilling bowls did not think they had eaten more nor did they feel more ‘full’ than those who had consumed a normal bowl of soup.

Applied to the context of studying for exams, ‘hiding’ the amount of work we need to do can be beneficial. Not only will you end up getting more work done but it won’t feel like you’re doing more work. Bingo!

On a practical level, this is a difficult thing to do. You know there’s more work to be done after today and the next day and so on. What you can do is change the way you do your homework.

Here are the steps to take:

  • Schedule the same period of time to do your homework on your calendar every day.
  • Within that period of time (1–2 hours), break up time slots to do specific chunks of homework. For example, this could be different topics within a subject or different sections within a topic or assignment.
  • Then, estimate the amount of time it will take you to do each chunk of homework if you were operating at your absolute optimum level (almost at the level that the character Bradley Cooper plays in the film Limitless). For example, if you initially allocated 45 minutes to do a chunk of homework, cut it down to 25 minutes. This time limit will encourage you to think and work faster.
  • After you’ve allocated time for each chunk of homework, also block out a 15–30 minute period of time to quickly review and test yourself on your homework as if it were everything you needed to know for the exam.

By doing this you’re breaking work down into manageable chunks and solidifying it within your memory as part of a long-term learning strategy.

When exams roll around, you’ll remember more information from throughout the year, revision workload will be lighter, and your anxiety about the gigantic task at hand will decrease.

The key is to block the time in advance and never let anything encroach on that time. Use the time pressure created by defining the time you have to get each chunk of your homework done to create speed and focus. Self-testing afterward locks it in your memory for a while until the information needs to be reviewed and refreshed again.

For a guide on how to plan out reviewing and refreshing information, watch this video:

Trigger statement: “Everyone understands it except for me”

Tool: Reframing

How to use it:

This tool comes in two parts.

1). Reframe the reason why you don’t understand

Too many students believe the popular myth that they only have one learning style or that their brain is programmed to think in a certain way. If the information isn’t presented in a very specific way then it is impossible for them to comprehend. This belief is like kryptonite for you — inducing anxiety because it makes you feel you have no control over your learning. Cue the sweaty palms, speeding heart, mental blocks, and giving up.

Professors such as Daniel Willingham and Polly Husmann have conducted research to disprove the theory that learning must match your preferred style. They conclude that “although different people may prefer different learning methods, adjusting the instruction to fit this preference does not improve learning.”

In other words, our learning style (visual, auditory, reading, kinaesthetic) is a neat concept we like to tell ourselves, but there’s no evidence to suggest studying information in our ‘preferred style’ improves learning or test scores.

Where did you hear this myth first? Your teacher? Your parents? The person who sits next to you in class?

It’s convenient to believe because there’s an appeal to treating each student as an individual with specific needs within the education system. Yet it ignores the truth that humans are more alike than we are different. It also makes our challenges and failures easier to make sense of. Whenever we find something difficult to understand, we often start looking for reasons why this is so rather than pressing on and wrestling with the information. Too often we take the path of least resistance.

So, first thing first: information is information. You don’t need it delivered in a particular way for you to understand it. Rather, you need to think about it in many different ways which could emphasize any of the visual, auditory, reading or kinaesthetic ways we can learn.

Now that you’ve taken control of your learning back…

2). Reframe what you don’t understand in order to understand it

I like to see understanding something as trying to crack a code on a padlock.

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Image: haru__q by Flickr

Some people are going to get lucky and crack the code on the first or second attempt. Others will need to try many different combinations. You might need to look at some diagrams, listen to some explanations, read some background detail and see the concept broken down and rebuilt in front of you. Creativity and persistence are the keys.

But doing this for everything you learn could take quite some time. So how do you speed it up?

I recommend you find people who have already cracked the code for themselves and see if their proven combination unlocks your padlock.

Action steps:

The best way to get more combinations which might unlock your padlock is to ask for them:

  • Ask your teacher to explain in a different way.

Eg. “Sir/Ms., could you explain what you just said in a different way please?”

  • Ask someone who ‘gets it’ to talk you through their understanding.

Eg. “Hey x, I was wondering how you got to that answer, can you talk me through it?”

  • Watch YouTube videos — these aren’t just visual. There’s audio, there’s writing on the screen, and you can copy what’s being done in the video for yourself in real life. A good YouTube video can be an incredibly effective way to learn because it can hit all visual, auditory, reading and kinaesthetic learning methods.

Trigger statement: “Another day has passed and I’ve done nothing”

Tool: Know your ‘slot’ and use micro-listing

How you use it:

In cricket, there’s a length a ball can be bowled called ‘the slot’. It’s between a good length and a yorker. I won’t go into all the cricketing jargon right now. All you need to know is that if the ball is bowled in ‘the slot’, the batsman is usually looking to score maximum runs.

Do you know when and where your ‘slot’ is? At what point in the day do you get the maximum amount of work done?

For me, it’s usually the morning. For you, it might be sometime else. Regardless, you need to figure this out. When do you feel most alert, motivated and distraction-free? What’s the period of time when you’re most likely to get into ‘flow’?

I believe in the maxim ‘win the morning, win the day’ because I know in the first 3–5 hours of the day, I can knock off some big tasks faster than usual: if I make the most of this time, everything else is a bonus.

This follows the Pareto Principle, that 20% of your actions produce 80% of your results. In this case, a small portion of your day can be a huge productivity driver as long as you recognise it and optimise towards it. Identify the time you work best, protect it, and use it to keep your exam anxiety in check by making great progress.

What about the rest of the day though? How do you gain more control and get more work done when you really don’t feel like it? Here’s where having had a job comes in handy…

One thing everyone knows about being employed in paid work is that you are required to do a set of tasks each day. It’s not up for debate, and you need to do these things in order to get paid — so you do them. What’s much harder is when we have a blank canvas and we need to make our own schedule. It’s odd that the two groups of people who have to do this most often couldn’t be more different: students vs. C-suite business executives. That said, the business executives have the weight of a company and its investors to keep them on task. Students have to create this discipline and motivation all by themselves, it’s a tough job!

Enter… the micro-list.

This is the most effective way I’ve found of getting students to execute a series of tasks one after another in order to get stuff done and build momentum when they least feel like it.

It’s simple.

Before you begin any task, write down a set of explicitly clear instructions an imbecile could understand. (I’m not saying that you and I are imbeciles, stick with me here.) Think of it like a recipe: be precise, leave out no detail, invest the time to explain each step. Check out an example below of a ‘home from school and transition to homework sequence’.

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I’ve deliberately included this example because people tend to become most distracted when transitioning between tasks or physical locations. The journey from school to home every day is a sticking point.

I use the notes app on my iPhone for this example, but you can use anything. For the record, I use the Notes app for impermanent stuff; otherwise, I use Evernote.

Why this works:

  • It invests you in the process. After writing the list out in such detail you’ll feel guilty about not completing it.
  • You instruct yourself as if you’re an imbecile. By doing this, it reveals how simple and easy the individual tasks are. Oftentimes you’ll be laughing at how ridiculous the instructions you’ve given yourself are. You’ll want to prove to yourself that you can indeed complete such a simple series of tasks.
  • As you complete each task, no matter how basic, it feels like you are gaining momentum and making progress. Cross out or check off each one as you go.

The anxiety-reducing properties of lists have been well researched. Perhaps it works by relieving ‘weight’ on our memories by writing things down, getting tasks done and forgetting about them. Or the so-called “Zeignarik effect”—how we actually perform the task better and in a more focused way if we think of it as being “unfinished” (see Baumeister and Masicampo).

Write things down in detail. It will make you less anxious and more effective.

Trigger statement: “I’m revising but nothing’s going in”

Tool: Active recall and spaced repetition

How to use it:

If you are revising/reviewing material, but are anxious that you are not retaining it, there are two likely culprits.

1. Using the most intuitive revision techniques instead of those which are most effective

Students use intuitive ‘revision techniques’ such as rereading, highlighting, mind maps and making flashcards. They do this for a good reason. These techniques feel good and they look good. But how effective are they?

As it happens, they’re not the most effective techniques.

Professor Dunlosky conducted a study which showed how reading through information once followed by a short practice test on that information improved information retention the most. This is not to say re-reading, highlighting, mind maps and flashcards aren’t useful revision aids. It’s the way you use them that matters. Specifically, if you use them to test your ability to retrieve information then your study will be most effective.

Even though students know they’re revising in order to successfully sit an exam, rarely do they base all the revision they do around testing. It’s the equivalent of training to be a powerlifter, but the training programme only requires you to lift the lightest weights (0–5kg) and perform exercises which are only remotely connected to the muscle groups needed to be a successful powerlifter (think wrist curls and calf raises).

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2. Becoming disheartened by failure during the testing process

Above, I mentioned that intuitive revision techniques are used because they feel good. These techniques make it feel like the information is sticking, yet when you get in the exam room, you can’t remember much of what you covered.

Using the most effective revision technique is going to push you. It will feel tough and challenging — it’s meant to. It’s just like any other type of training which delivers improved performance. The first time you test yourself, you might not remember much. So what. An athlete doesn’t get a new drill right the first time they try it either. The trick is to continue showing up every day, following the process and gradually building your ability over time.

Here are two of my favourite quotes about failure:

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case, you fail by default.

- J.K.Rowling, Harvard Commencement Speech, 2008

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

- Samuel Beckett, Worstword Ho

To summarise: get the right training programme, trust in the process and remember, if you’re not failing, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Trigger statement: “It’s the day before the exam, I’m panicking”

Tool: Visualisation — Swish technique

How to use it:

If you type ‘define anxiety’ into Google you’ll get this:

“Anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.”

The keyword which can completely change the meaning of this sentence is ‘uncertain’. What would happen if we changed it to ‘certain’? The sentence would take on a completely different meaning and wouldn’t really make sense. A certain outcome helps to reduce anxiety (even if it’s a certainty that we might fail, we are then at least in a position to come to terms with it).

Here’s a way to do it: use the Swish visualisation technique.

This is a technique I’ve modified from Tony Robbins’ Unleash The Power Within seminar I attended back in 2015.

Disclaimer: this technique helps to adjust your frame of mind to one more conducive to exam success. It does this alone. Thinking and saying all the right things are worth nothing unless they are reflected in the action you take.

Here’s the process you need to follow inside your head. I often find sitting down in a quiet space and closing my eyes works best:

  • Allow the stressful/negative feeling/image to fill your mind (eg. you panicking in an exam, not knowing the answers, writing frantically)
  • In the bottom right-hand corner of the image, create a smaller image of the positive outcome you’d like to achieve (eg. you cruising through an exam paper with ease, each answer is popping into your head; you writing clear conscience answers to questions)
  • Make the positive image bigger and bigger so it covers the negative image. While the positive image grows, its colours become more vivid and bold; on the other hand, the negative image becomes darker and hazier.
  • Repeat this process of the positive image expanding or ‘swishing’ to cover the negative image 2–3 times within your mind — until your focus is captured by the positive image.

This isn’t a solution in and of itself, but it can help concentrate your focus on a positive goal. I liken it to walking along a precipice on a rock face. The more you’re looking down, the more likely you are to fall off because that’s what you’re focussing on. Look forward, focus on the positive goal you’d like to achieve — to quote Tony Robbins, “where focus goes, energy flows”.

To summarise…

Create certainty about things you are uncertain about, and the dictionary definition of anxiety will no longer apply to you. Get into the habit of checking in on what uncertainty is driving your anxiety and refocusing yourself on a positive outcome to the point that it dominates your frame of mind. If that’s all you’re thinking about, it becomes the only option you can see ahead — it becomes certain.

Trigger statement: “It’s 10 minutes before the exam, I’m panicking”

Tool: Develop a pre-exam routine

How to use it:

This is one of the most common times a student tends to feel anxious. After all, it does make sense, since you are in close proximity to the source of your anxiety — the exam room. In order to effectively manage anxiety in the lead up to an exam, I recommend you build a detailed pre-exam routine. The rationale behind this is as follows:

  1. If you are focusing on executing your routine as opposed to the anxious thoughts running wild in your head, you will be better positioned to perform well.
  2. Routines create familiarity and give you a sense of I’ve done this before, I can do it again before an exam.
  3. Routines create consistency. You want to be able to achieve at a consistently high level of performance in every exam you take. If you put the same things into a process each time, a similar set of results are going to pop out the other side each time.

Here are four pieces of advice I often give to students what to avoid to eliminate unnecessary anxiety immediately before the exam:

  • 🚫 Don’t hang around in busy areas or where lots of people congregate. Usually, this is nearest the entrance to the exam room — there are no marks for being the first in the room.
  • 🚫 Steer clear of the people who just don’t care. You know who I’m referring to. Don’t judge these people — it’s their life, they can do what they want with it. They might have a completely different master plan and vision for how they’re going to achieve the life they want. Respect that, but also steer clear of them. Their vibe and outlook is not one you want to entertain at this stage. Especially when some of these people also feel the need to explicitly prove just how much they don’t care to others by turning up late, leaving exams early and staging WWE style wrestling matches before exams.
  • 🚫 Avoid those people who are trying to guess what is going to be on the paper. They don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, no matter how much they try to persuade you they do. There is no point in listening to them.
  • 🚫 Avoid the smart arses. These are the people who will start rattling off the most obscure and random factoids they have learned. The motive behind this could be anything. It could be driven by their own insecurity or they may think they’re genuinely being helpful. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone but the examiner.

To conclude, use a detailed pre-exam routine in order to keep anxiety and overwhelm at bay immediately before an exam. Within this, be sure to be deliberate about who you are spending time with before the exam to ensure you go into the room quietly confident.

Trigger statement: “I just can’t concentrate during exams”

Tool: Blinkers game

How to use it:

I’m not a gambling man, but there is one event I will always have a punt on with my friends and family — The Grand National.

Like most people betting on this race, I know zero about the form of the horses. All I’ve got to go on is the mainstream media, how cool the name of the horse is, what it looks like, the jockey colours, and a mate on WhatsApp saying he’s been ‘tipped off’. None of these works. Nonetheless, I do have selection criteria — I always pick a horse with blinkers. If it has blinkers and is grey I’m definitely betting on it. But blinkers alone is an absolute must.

Horse blinkers or blinders are a piece of horse tack, which prevents the horse from seeing to the rear and to the side. It keeps them stay focused on the task at hand (winning the race) instead of being spooked by other encroaching horses.

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Image: Katexic Clippings Newsletter via Flickr

You need to create you own set of blinkers for exams. No, not literally — otherwise, you’d look like the image above and I imagine the exam invigilator will be keeping a very close eye on you for the duration.

What you should do is play the ‘blinkers game’ inside your own head.

When I’m working with a student, I always ask them how an exam went, but I position a series of rapid-fire questions in the following way:

“How did the exam go?

Who sat next to you?

Did you keep pace with the people sitting around you?

Who went to the loo?

Who left early?

How do you think you did in comparison to everyone else?”

I can tell if an exam went well or not by the answers to these questions. If the student successfully played the blinkers game, they can’t answer the questions in much detail. After all, exam blinkers only allow you to look in two directions — towards your exam paper and the clock at the front of the room. If you spy who’s sitting around you and what they’re doing, you lose the game.

“Comparison is the thief of joy”

- Theodore Roosevelt

The quote above is true. But I like making this adjustment to it: “Comparison is the thief of joy and donor of anxiety.” Yes, I’ve just butchered a famous quote, but the point I’ve done it to make an important point. Comparison not only steals your joy but it fuels your anxiety. Instead, set up your own internal game to keep you headed toward the winner's circle.

Trigger statement: “My mind wanders or goes blank in the exam”

Tool: Breathe

How to use it:

We’ve all encountered a situation where we’ve read a question on an exam paper and the answer hasn’t popped into our head immediately.

We now have two options.

  1. Refocus on the present moment and consciously engage our brain to try and piece together an answer which stands a chance of being correct.
  2. Let our anxiety overcome us by thinking about every way the exam paper is going to go badly and the negative knock-on effect this will have on our future.

Adrian Ward and Daniel Wegner have defined what mind-blanking and mind-wandering are:

“Mind-blanking shares a fundamental similarity with the well-established mental state of mind-wandering, in that both states represent a decoupling of attention from the current perceptual environment. However, these mental states are also theoretically distinct; whereas the wandering mind represents a state in which attention brings stimuli unrelated to the current task or environment into conscious awareness, the blank mind seems to represent a state in which attention fails to bring any stimuli at all into conscious awareness — the mind is not just elsewhere, but nowhere”.

For me, the keywords within their explanation above are “both states represent a decoupling of attention from the current perceptual environment.” This implies that if you have some solid strategies to refocus your attention on the exam you’re going to be more successful.

The oldest and most well-known way of helping focus human attention on the present moment is meditation. In meditation, breathing is used to focus the mind on the present. It’s this feature of meditation which we should incorporate into our exam toolset to control mind blanking and mind wandering.

Here’s a step-by-step process you can implement when you come across a question you don’t know the answer to or need to think carefully about:

  1. Read the question at normal speed.
  2. Inhale through your nose to a slow count of 3 while reading the question.
  3. Exhale through your mouth to a slow count of three once you’ve finished reading the question.
  4. Inhale through your nose to a slow count of 3 while reading the question and highlighting the keywords (eg. this could be key question words such as ‘describe’, ‘explain’ or ‘compare,’ as well as the key topic areas within the question).
  5. Exhale through your mouth to a slow count of three once you’ve finished reading the question.
  6. Inhale through your nose to a slow count of 10 while writing out the question in full.
  7. Exhale through your mouth to a slow count of three once you’ve finished writing out the question.
  8. Begin jotting down some workings/answers to the question, or an essay structure, if it’s an essay question.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Remember, breathe from the belly, not the chest. By letting your diaphragm contract downwards, a greater pressure imbalance between the space inside your chest and the external environment is created. The result: more good sweet oxygen is going to come rushing to your aid. Enjoy the temporary potbelly.
  • Doing more ‘active’ exercises such as highlighting and rewriting can help improve your understanding of the question because it draws your attention to the individual words which have been used to compose it.

The next time a tough question comes along, breathe. It’s the first thing we all did when we arrived on this earth! As time has gone by we’ve forgotten just how important it is.

Trigger statement: “I get panic attacks in the exam and can’t do anything so I just leave”

Tool: Grounding technique — finger pinch method

How to use it:

A lot of students have messaged me in the past year or two stating they suffer from panic attacks. First up, let’s be clear about the facts.

What actually is a panic attack? (As defined by the NHS)

A panic attack is a feeling of sudden and intense anxiety.

Panic attacks can also have physical symptoms, including shaking, feeling disorientated, nausea, rapid, irregular heartbeats, dry mouth, breathlessness, sweating and dizziness.

Professor Paul Salkovskis, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Applied Science at the University of Bath, says it’s important not to let your fear of panic attacks control you. He states:

“Panic attacks always pass and the symptoms are not a sign of anything harmful happening. Tell yourself that the symptoms you’re experiencing are caused by anxiety.”

It’s important to note the facts above.

I think modern media can do a pretty good job of convincing young people they are helpless. That’s the media for you — they want your attention/clicks because that’s how they make their money, and they’ll gladly skim over the professional point of view to achieve that end.

The health professionals say you can take control. They also see panic attacks for what they truly are and don’t exaggerate their severity. Listen to the professional medics, not the professional attention merchants.

From my research, it seems most of the professional recommendations on how to control panic attacks are based on controlling the human senses. After all, it does seem like the intuitive thing to do. The symptoms are physical, and they can be felt, seen and heard (eg. sweating, shaking and a pounding heart).

Breathing exercises similar to the one detailed in the previous section are often recommended. But the solution which came up as a category time and again (and which breathing exercises would also fall under) were grounding techniques.

The charity defines grounding techniques as exercises which draw your focus onto what is happening to you physically, either in your body or in your surroundings, instead of being trapped by the thoughts in your mind which are causing you to feel anxious.

Importantly, grounding techniques help to stop anxiety escalating by breaking the cycle of emotional signals picked up by the amygdala — the part of our brain which manages our emotional responses.

Here are some examples of grounding techniques, notice how they all focus on the human senses to draw your attention away from the thoughts inside your head:

  • Breathing slowly
  • Listening to sounds around you
  • Walking barefoot or stamping lightly on the spot
  • Wrapping yourself in a blanket and feeling it around you
  • Sniffing something with a strong smell eg. Lavender
  • Focusing on something an object in the room and notice everything about it (eg. Its shape, colour, patterns, size)

Unfortunately, you can’t do all of the exercises above without risking being kicked out of the exam! So I’ve come up with a little exercise you can do which engages a couple of the senses and can be performed easily in an exam situation. It’s called the finger pinch method.

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You’re aiming for something like this!

Here are the steps:

  • Pinch your index finger and thumb together
  • Apply light pressure until your attention is drawn to the feeling
  • With your thumb facing you begin to notice the different shapes, wrinkles, and patterns on your thumb
  • Continue to do this until you feel as if you can continue with the exam

Trigger statement: “My answers were different to what everyone else said they wrote, I just can’t stop thinking about it”

Tool: Black dot technique

How to use it:

I once heard a rumour that Tiger Woods forgets about the shot he’s just played by counting out 10 steps after he’s hit the golf ball. Good or bad, after 10 steps, the shot is forgotten. All of his focus and attention is now directed towards the next shot.

Rumour or not, his psychological strength has allowed him to complete one of the greatest sporting comebacks in history by winning the 2019 Masters Championship after multiple back surgeries, challenges in his private life, and going 11 years without a major championship win. Just like golf, exams tempt us to dwell on our mistakes and things we cannot change instead of focusing on what’s actually important — the next exam.

What makes exams particularly challenging is our tendency to compare answers after the exam. It’s a pointless exercise, but for whatever reason — insecurity, competitiveness, or just that niggling desire to know what someone else put — we entertain those types of conversations.

In my opinion, it’s a lose-lose situation. If people tell you they wrote the same answer as you, it makes you overconfident for the next exam, after all, who’s to say the answer is definitely right? On the other hand, if you put something different to everyone else it crushes your self-esteem and impacts your ability to give your next exam your full and undivided attention.

What’s more, how do you know you’re definitely wrong and everyone else is right? Only the examiner knows. After the exam, you need to be deliberate about who you talk to. Other people are going to start running through their answers to questions and comparing their answers, these could be for any reason: the thing is, none of this matters, it’s a complete waste of time.

Be deliberate about who you talk to after the exam. Find a person or group of people who actually don’t want to talk about it. Hang with them and talk about something a bit more interesting than a boring old exam which you’ve just done and therefore ceases to be important.

But, if you do get blindsided by people rattling through the answers and you happen to overhear something which unsettles you, this podcast includes a few visualisation techniques you can try out to settle and refocus your energy:


“Don’t let success get to your head, nor failure get to your heart.”

Trigger statement: “I’m nervous for results day and how these results will impact my future”

Tool: The Chinese farmer story

How to use it:

The philosopher Alan Watts told a good story about a Chinese farmer in his book Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life: Collected Talks 1960–1969. It goes like this:

“Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbours came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.”

The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.”

The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbours then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.”

The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbours came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

He then summarises the meaning of the story like this:

“The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.”

This story and the lesson to be learned from it isn’t really a tool, it’s more something you should just keep in mind when results day rolls around. Whatever the outcome ‘good’ or ‘bad’, the consequences of this are not set in stone. You are still in control of what to do next with the options you have available to you. If you are proactive and positive with the options you have, you may just be able to look back on results day and determine the results you got were a good thing for you, regardless of whether they were ‘good’ or not.

What We’re Aiming For

So there you have it — a full guide on how to conquer test anxiety and subdue panic attacks whatever the scenario. Yes, we’re all clear on getting away from anxiety but what’s the reverse? What feeling should we be trying to cultivate in an exam?

In true exam coach style, the answer lies with sportspeople. After a victory, interviewers always ask sports people the same couple of questions: “How did you feel going into today? Were you nervous?”

99% of the time they will respond with something similar to “No, I was excited.”

The signs of anxiety — fast heartbeat, sweaty palms, and shaking—are very similar to the signs of excitement: fast heartbeat, sweaty palms and shaking.

The end goal is to master our interpretation of anxiety. Athletes train themselves to channel their anxiety into excitement in order to help them perform their best.

If you can do this by following the advice above, you’ll be well on your way to achieving a top set of grades in your exams.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most…

James Davey

Written by

James is the founder of The Exam Coach. You can find out more here:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

James Davey

Written by

James is the founder of The Exam Coach. You can find out more here:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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