Insights – 4 min read

How to Ace Exam Anxiety 

October 28, 2022
By Dr. Mark Whittington

Do your best and accept the rest.

By Dr Mark Whittington

It’s that scary time of year. And by that I don’t mean Halloween. It’s that time when many of us are haunted by something much scarier than the ghouls, witches and jack-o’-lanterns. Exams! I can help you deal with the exam jitters. First, know your enemy.

Exam anxiety is performance anxiety and performance anxiety is the same whether it’s the stage fright experienced by a musician as the curtains go up or the stress felt by a public speaker about to take the stage. This anxiety is no different to what you feel as you are about to take a test or write an exam at school or university. It is what we call anticipatory anxiety; irrational fear of a poor outcome coupled with an exaggerated perception of negative consequences. The first thing you should know is that you are in excellent company. What you are feeling is something every great performer or sporting champion has experienced at one time or another. Everyone gets butterflies. Champions master the art of getting them to fly in formation.

Big money. Big Audience. Big pressure.

For the metaphorical illustration that follows I have chosen the metaphor of professional tennis. I have done so for good reason. While every sport is a head-game to some extent the individual performance and high stakes of professional tennis take the psychological aspect of the game to the highest level. We’ve all witnessed the tantrums and meltdowns. But we have also witnessed opponents crumble in the face of the clinical precision of cucumber-cool champions like Roger Federer.

Roger Federer plays each individual point in the moment as it comes. He puts aside thoughts of the game, set or match point. Instead he plays every single point exclusively in the present. He doesn’t dwell on the point that may have been lost before. He doesn’t project into the future. He plays the point in the here and now regardless of the implications. He doesn’t think about winning or losing or the millions of eyes that are upon him. He doesn’t think about ranking, title or the size of the event. He plays every point exactly the same way: According to his best effort on the day. Right here. Right now.

Of course this does not come without focussed practice, determination and ironclad self-discipline. But once mastered it provides a key to outstanding, sustained and consistent performance.

Now, by way of contrast let’s consider a temperamental firebrand like Nick Kyrgios, while a great player in his own right, a great athlete and a delight to watch, Nick is in many respects the polar opposite of the Federer temperament. Many times we have seen him play the point up until such time as the pressure builds and he fears losing the match. When he starts project into the future. The occasion, the title, the money and the audience into focus. Predictably this distracts him to the point where his game suffers. He becomes frustrated and angry and acts out. He stopped playing the point. To use a well-worn sports metaphor. He dropped the ball and let himself down. John McEnroe was another champion cast in a similar mould.

Trying too hard, expecting too much and projecting into the future rather than concentrating on doing our best on a given day in a given moment, derails our ability to stay focused and “on point”, to coin a phrase. And this applies as much to writing an exam as it does to tennis, football, golf, boxing or any other sport or enterprise. The results of an exam taken by a distracted person worrying about the future and fearing failure will not reflect their best potential.

Before we wrap up and leave the metaphorical tennis court, we need to consider a third category of temperament. These are the people who, in the face of performance anxiety, simply give up. They don’t “give it their best shot” and, somewhat predictably when competing for high stakes at a ruthless top professional level, they fail. For me, in the world of professional tennis, Bernard Tomić is a good example of this mindset. A young man with fabulous potential; I suspect Bernard burnt out training too hard for too long. Watching him it has often felt like he was playing because he had to, rather than because he wanted to. This emotional ambivalence, the lack of the desire or hunger to achieve, leads to inadequate preparation, lack of motivation and, inevitably, to lack lustre performance or failure.

A simple graph to help explain: Performance on the vertical axis. Stress low on the left rising to the right.

At the top: The Sweet spot of optimum performance.

A few observations specific to exams

Trying too hard adversely affects performance. Relaxing, deep breathing and calming one’s nerves positively affects performance. While meaning well, many parents still inadvertently over-pressure their children to perform well. The parents’ lack of understanding of this principle creates performance anxiety in the child whose results consequently do not reflect their best potential. Trying hard will improve performance. Trying too hard will not. It’s a question of balance.

I always told my own kids as long as they got an A for effort I could accept an F  for outcome. There is more to success than ability. More often it is the capacity to work hard plus self-discipline, focused practice, perseverance and the resilience to rise above failure that lead to success. You cannot expect every performance to be a Personal Best. Aim to peak in the final be it at the Olympics or in an exam. Personal best performances are rare peaks. Aiming for a balanced sustainable best instead will relieve some of the pressure thus improving the average result. This approach often delivers a personal best when you least expect it.

“Doing your best” extends beyond surmounting a particular challenge. It is inextricably coupled to maintaining your best health. Trying so hard that the fundamentals of good health like diet, sleep and exercise start to suffer will soon lead to the slippery slope of diminishing returns. Best health helps you adopt the best possible attitude of which hope and optimism are cornerstones. Finally, everything should be tempered by your own best judgement. Life is about experience. Truly valuable experience always includes its share of failures. We learn from our mistakes. Experience that does not include mistakes does not equate to wisdom.

Speaking of wisdom, here are a few tried and tested exam tactics from someone who has at their fair share:

Which brings us back to sport and my metaphor of professional tennis.  Athletes use the metaphor of “choking” for good reason. If you bite off more than you can chew in the form of anticipatory anxiety like the fear of a poor outcome along with all the  negative consequences that would go with it you will choke. Be like cucumber-cool Roger Federer. Play every point individually as separate chewable bite sized chunks. Stay in the moment and on point if you want to ace your exams.

About the author

Dr. Mark Whittington Founder

A graduate of the distinguished Otago Medical School, Dr Mark Whittington has more than 30 years’ experience working at the clinical coalface as a Consultant Psychiatrist.

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