I have treated a good many students who become excessively anxious during written or practical examinations. These students have generally revised more thoroughly than others and good write excellent answers if they were sat at home, even within the same time limit as in the exam. But when it is a real exam they go to pieces. The fight-or-flight response which I describe HERE is triggered, and all their brain and body wants to do is run away, which of course is not how you pass examinations!

Typically the anxiety kicks in from first thing in the morning on examination day. It then gets a lot worse when the student arrives at the examination venue where they may see other students showing signs of anxiety. Human beings are normally quite receptive to other peoples’ feelings, so anxiety can be very infectious, spreading very rapidly through a crowd. The student also hears their friends discussing the forthcoming exam. Maybe someone is saying “I bet such-and-such a question comes up!” and they realise that they haven’t revised for that specific question. Other students may be openly discussing their own anxiety, triggering the same response in others.

During the examination, the very formal setting can be very intimidating to some people. This is a sharp contrast to the more friendly and informal atmosphere which students may be used to in classes. The supervisors (sometimes called “invigilators”) walk up and down the aisles and are obviously on the lookout for any infringement of the rules. Some students may be especially anxious when an invigilator approaches them from behind. 

As the examination progresses, students may see other students leaving early. This may trigger one of two negative ideas. They may think “Oh gosh she has finished already and I’m only halfway through, I must be doing really badly!” Or they may think “Oh no, she has given up in despair, that’s how bad this is!”

When we experience any strong emotion we can easily remember previous situations when we felt that same emotion. So if we’re feeling very anxious during an examination our mind may be flooded by previous situations where we felt very anxious and threatened, even if those situations were actually quite different.

Extreme anxiety around examinations may result from a bad experience at one particular exam, which maybe came at a time when you were already very stressed for other reasons. Or there may be other things going on in your life right now, and the extra stress of the exam is just “the icing on the cake.” For some people the problem could have deeper roots, for instance if parents or teachers have told them that they are stupid. There is strong scientific evidence that people tend to behave as others expect them to behave. This even applies to intelligence tests. People who believe themselves to be of lower intelligence can actually score highly if they don’t know that the test they’re taking is an IQ test. But if they’re told it’s an IQ test their score will drop! Our beliefs about ourselves have a very powerful effect on us.