National 5 Exams – Coping with Stress and Anxiety

Are you someone who experiences stress or anxiety when sitting exams?

Do you feel like a bag of nerves going into the exam room?

Does stress affect your performance during the exam?

Does stress affect your performance during the exam?

For many students, sitting tests and exams can be stressful.  Good study and revision techniques will help make sure you are well prepared but, if you’re someone who feels anxious or overwhelmed by the prospect of sitting exams, you need to find ways of overcoming exam stress.

First, it’s helpful to know something about what causes exam stress.

Biologicical Causes

In stressful situations, such as before and during an exam, the body releases a hormone called adrenaline. This helps prepare your body to deal with what is about to happen, ensuring that you are alert and ready.

However, adrenaline can also lead to shallow breathing which can reduce the oxygen going to your brain, making it difficult to concentrate and think clearly.  For some people an adrenaline rush can lead to nausea, sweating and shaking hands, and these physical symptoms can make you feel even more nervous.

Poor diet and lack of sleep are also physical causes of stress.


Mental factors, such as fear of failure, contribute to test anxiety.  If you believe that you are likely to perform poorly or even fail to pass, you are far more likely to be anxious before and during the exam.

Pressure is another factor.  You may also feel pressure to live up to the expectations of parents and family to achieve good grades and you don’t want to let them down.  It might be that you are putting pressure on yourself to match the grades your friends achieve, or to get the grades you need for your chosen academic or career path.


So there are plenty of different factors that can cause you to feel anxious and stressed before and during a test.  Here are some tips and advice that can help you overcome these feelings and give you the best chance of performing well during the exam.

1. Be well prepared for the exam

That means that you have done the right amount of studying and revision for the exam.  Don't leave revision until the night before. Being prepared will boost your confidence, which will reduce your test anxiety.

Check out our Studying and Revision blog post.

2. Prepare your body physically

  • Get a good night’s sleep. This gives your brain time to recharge and remember what you’ve learnt.
  • Be mindful of what you eat and drink, particularly on the day of the exam.  Have a light, healthy breakfast – this will help with energy and concentration. Avoid junk food - it will bring a sudden burst of energy and then fall away quickly leaving you feeling worn-out.  Cut back on energy drinks, sugar and caffeine - they can increase nerves. Drink lots of water instead.
  • Try to get some exercise on the day of the exam - any physical activity will reduce stress by using up adrenalin and other hormones that the body produces under stress, as well as relaxing the muscles.  Exercise – even if it’s only walking to school - will help you feel both energised and relaxed.

3. Remember - it’s okay to feel nervous

It’s perfectly natural to feel nervous before an exam.  Being a bit nervous can actually be a good thing because it keeps your mind alert and is a sign you want to do well.  So, tell yourself that it’s okay to feel a bit nervous – all your mates probably feel exactly the same.

4. Don’t let other people’s stress affect you

On the day of the exam, try to avoid being around friends if they are nervous or worried.  Being around people who are stressed, or who tell you the exam’s going to be a nightmare, will probably make you to feel the same.  Find a quiet space on your own, or hang out with friends who are positive or optimistic.

Also, don’t compare yourself to your mates.  Competing with friends might help keep you motivated, but it can also make you feel like you’re not good enough, especially on social media. Set your own targets and goals and focus on these.

5. Have a positive mindset

It might be easier said than done - but try to have a positive mindset about the exam.  Banish negative thoughts completely, such as, ‘I'm not good at this subject,’ ‘I didn't study hard enough,’ or ‘I can't do this.’ 

Replace them with positive thoughts . . . ‘I studied hard for this,’ ‘I can do this,’ and ‘I WILL pass this exam.’ Positive  thinking is a powerful tool in overcoming exam stress.

6. Deep breathing

Before the exam begins, the quickest and best way of reducing stress and feelings of panic is to close your eyes and take several long, slow, deep breaths.

Deep breathing helps to calm you down, stop your heart racing and it will help to make sure that enough oxygen gets to your brain.  When you first sit down to do your exam, take time to slow your breathing and relax.

7. Good exam technique

There’s a lot you can do during the exam to increase your chances of achieving good grades.  This is more about exam technique than overcoming nerves. 

Check our post on exam tips and advice.

8. Learn from your experience

After the exam is finished, try not to worry about things that did not go as well as you had hoped … for example, a question you didn’t answer as strongly as you think you should have done, or questions that you were hoping would come up but didn’t.  Be positive and focus about the things you did do well.  Learn from your experience and take the positive aspects into your next exam.

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