Anxiety: The Real Reason You Might Be Struggling With Exams


What is the definition of anxiety?

There are a number of definitions of anxiety. The primary one is…

'the anticipation of a future (or sometimes a past) threat. Fear is incorporated in that definition, but this is usually regarded as a real threat to survival, rather than a perceived threat.

High stress levels can result in muscle tension, poor sleep patterns, cautious behaviours and/or avoidant behaviours. These maladaptive behaviours include failing to attend events, usually cancelling last minute and avoiding specific social situations, like giving speeches. But, it also incorporates other mental disorders, including OCD, social phobias and panic disorders.

Due to poor definitions and sometimes even diagnosis. It’s pretty clear that a huge amount of people, at some time in their life, will suffer from anxiety. It can be born out of a daily hassle or an upsetting issue, like workplace stress, family arguments or daily commutes. Anxiety affects, more or less, everyone. But how people cope with it differs immensely.

Are there specific examples of exam related-anxiety?

A key example is exam stress. There is a clear correlation between state anxiety (mental worry) and exams. Usually, as exams draw nearer, anxiety levels can rise to detrimental levels. Lotz and Sparfeldt found that State Test Anxiety showed an overall increase and peaked shortly before exams.” They also found that “Trait worry and emotional stress correlated substantially with State Test Anxiety.” (Lotz and Sparfeldt 2017)

So, in the lead up to exams, students’ State Anxiety (unpleasant emotional arousal and stress, cognitive based (thought processes)) and Trait Anxiety (individual difference and biological predispositions) rise. Individuals with naturally high levels of trait anxiety, and those who are ‘worriers’ are already more prone to high levels of State anxiety. Hormones can also play a part. It’s suggested that females experience higher levels of trait anxiety than males. This corresponds to girls reporting higher levels of stress in exams.

Does school life fuel anxiety in children?

Not wanting to go to school is a common morning ritual, but there's a difference between not enjoying school and fearing going to school. Communication with children is the only real way to know and to help. With culture and society expecting more from children and even nursery kids, there is a rise in anxiety-related issues. At this age, it’s extremely hard to help, as sometimes, communication skills are still growing and changing. Intervention at this age is not really advisable or wanted by parents – they just want their kids to be happy.

But with new exams, the 4+ for example, and the issue with stretched staffing in schools, identifying and helping children with this is really hard. On the other end of the scale, it’s well documented that university students struggle with pressure, stress and anxiety.

The rise in these cases, you’d assume, is isolation (universities have a very much ‘get on with it’ approach in their support) coupled with exam stress. This is leading to an increased state of numerous anxieties, and it’s becoming commonplace at university. Another issue, which is giving rise to anxiety, is the school environment.

A school is a fantastic breeding ground for stress. Exam stress, pressure from teachers, social conformity, bullying and ridiculously high expectations on students all lead to one thing. The issue is that no one is doing anything to help. Children are on their own, and when they are on their own, they are on their phones. As discussed by Simon Sinek, we know that phones and specific apps are addictive. This addiction is not even being treated. If kids  have the skills to help alleviate their stress and recognise their anxieties, they don’t use them. Their addiction-- the smart phone, the cause of a lot of anxieties-- is easy to access and to be influenced by. If you can’t leave your phone alone for 2 minutes, that’s an addiction. Addictions lead to dependence, and dependency leads to worry and stress.

Schools don’t focus on individuals, they focus on cohorts-- “90% of our students gain A-B at A-level.” Schools are exam factories, focusing on the masses, not the individual. As far as social support and stress interventions are concerned, schools are failing. It’s important to note that I’m not, as one myself, blaming teachers. Their jobs are full-on, and they won’t have time to help individuals. Schools should implement tutoring sessions, to help specific children, to help them deal with their anxieties, rather than assuming that either the stress will dissipate, or ‘everyone is in the same boat during exams’.

So, does small group and one-on-one tutoring  work?

One-on-one mentoring is proven to work. It’s proven to alleviate stress and reduce arousal and also boost motivation and confidence. In 2015,Cliff Boutelle found that focusing on personality factors and traits between mentor-mentee relationships helps to reduce anxiety and stress. We’re back to traits again. To reduce anxiety, stress and depression we need to look at people’s traits-- how they operate, how they think and how they work. Yes, it takes time and effort. But it’s worth it long term, as you have students who aren’t stressed and perform well.

What does other research show us about anxiety?

Research and studies into anxiety in early life have been associated with long-term adverse outcomes and negative effects in adult life. These adverse outcomes include substance abuse, depression, abnormalities in brain function and personality disorders and dysfunctions. And more often than not, poor intra and inter personal relationships.

‘Dependency was also a big factor; high anxiety leads to nicotine, drugs and alcohol abuse’ Alexander McFarlane et al.

Other studies have shown that gastrointestinal problems and sleep disturbances were significantly related to stressors, Ashley E. Nixon et al.

Nixon also found that ‘it’s important to examine physical symptoms, as they are related to a wide range of job stressors.’

Psychological stress and anxiety can lead to physiological illness, both acute and chronic. Kiecolt-Glazer found that in a number of medical students, natural killer cells (white blood cells) were significantly reduced. What was interesting, is that these NK cells were reduced more severely just before their finals, compared to two weeks before and a week after their exams. This shows that while stress causes high anxiety in the short term, it’s also a long-term health worry, and can result in immune-suppression.

What about people's own experiences?

More recently, discussed the rise in her worries and fears from her own experiences, and subsequent application to students taking exams this year. She recalled the time when ‘my chest simply stopped letting me push it out so that air could flow in.’ This is scary. It’s now estimated that there has been a 70% increase in anxiety and depression in teenagers over the past 25 years. That is alarming – and as far as I’m concerned, it’s not something that anyone really talks about. Obesity and diet are covered by the press every day, very few mention arousal, stress or depression. Specifically compared to the volume of new cases and diagnosis.

A student I taught discussed more with me, his teacher, than his parents, peers or friends. I think he saw it as a form of weakness. He thought it was just him who it affected. Nonsense, it affects everyone - in its own way. Anxiety is bad, it’s inhibiting, it’s painful, but it’s not lonely, you’re not on your own! Some people habitually bite their nails, twitch, or look from the corner of their eyes during conversation. Some people get a dry mouth and others can only look at the future pessimistically. But that’s ok, we’re all different. What we need are coping strategies.

How can I reduce my anxiety levels?

There are a few ways to reduce it. First, you need to look at somatic and cognitive anxiety management techniques. Somatic techniques include deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. These are usually non-specific techniques and can be used in a number of anxiety-provoking situations. Whereas, cognitive techniques are more specific, like anxiety in a social situation. You need to recognise your anxiety-- the feeling of dread and sickness when preparing for a social situation, or an interview, or an exam.

You can use specific techniques for coping and these are anxiety controlling skills. These skills include positive self-talk, rational thinking and imagery. They do require time, effort and often a mentor to support you. However, they are lifelong skills that will help reduce anxiety, stress and fear.

Are there any other techniques?

Two other non-invasive techniques are meditation and mindfulness. Meditation has been adopted in many countries, although these are usually countries which are less focused on exams. A school in San Francisco, however, ran a meditation programme and found an improvement in pupil’s behaviours, work ethic and happiness. Years later, the school now has some of the best attendance rates in the city. Reduced anxiety and stress leads to improved mental health and cognitive function. Mindfulness has also been used, but it’s been criticised as it can result in some children becoming more anxious as they’re focusing on their specific stress.

Get help from our tutors

Tutor House is a top UK provider of online and in-person tuition, offering expert A-Level Revision courses, UCAS support, SEN tuition, homeschool tutors and much more. Find your perfect tutor with us today.

Free Consultation
Alex Dyer

Alex is the founder and director of Tutor House and has a degree in Psychology. He has worked in the educational industry for 14 years; teaching Psychology for 8 years at a school in London. He now runs Tutor House, after setting it up in 2012. Alex still tutors every week, he writes for the Huffington Post and has appeared on the BBC and ITV to discuss educational topics. Alex is an educational consultant and UCAS expert, he’s worked with hundreds of students over the years. He’s obsessed with squash, but is distinctly average.

Related Posts

Get in Touch!

Thank you! Your submission has been received!

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form