Tag Archives: cognitive restructuring

How to Deal with Exam Anxiety

Exam anxiety is a real and legitimate problem that can affect a person’s academic performance. There are however certain skills you can learn to assist with managing exam anxiety.



There are numerous causes for exam anxiety:

  • Poor study skills – Some students do not know how to effectively study for an exam, as a result they feel under prepared and so experience anxiety. Whilst others think they know how to study but are in fact using inadequate methods.
  • Negative self-talk – These are often students who have done badly in previous exams or who dislike sitting for exams and so convince themselves that they will do poorly. The self-doubt makes it difficult for them to concentrate before and even during the exam.
  • The perfectionist – For some students anything less than a distinction is deemed a failure, thus placing exaggerated and unnecessary pressure on themselves.


Physical symptoms include –

  • tense muscles
  • sweating
  • rapid heart rate
  • nausea
  • rapid or shallow breathing
  • feeling faint


Cognitive symptoms include:

  • inability to remember simple things
  • illogical thinking
  • mental blocks

In order to deal with exam anxiety one needs to address both the physical and cognitive aspects of the anxiety. Certain techniques are specifically recommended for the relief of exam anxiety, with some requiring  practice and persistence.

Positive Self-Talk

Our thoughts have the ability to create positive or negative feelings about ourselves and situations. Anxiety is brought on by a person’s thoughts or expectations of how an event or experience is likely to turn out. A solution for dealing with this form of doubt is referred to as cognitive restructuring – what this process does is get the individual to examine their irrational, negative self-talk and replace it with positive self-talk.


If you repeatedly tell yourself that you are not going to do well in an exam, your emotions will mirror this message resulting in feelings of anxiety because the message you are repeating to yourself is negative and self-defeating.

Of course just telling yourself that you are ready for an exam, but you haven’t opened a book, is not going to work. You need to have put the effort and time in so as to reinforce your positive self-talk; so that the message is true and you can believe in it.

Be Smart 

1. Be realistic about the amount of time you have.

It is easy to misjudge how much time you actually have available for studying or completing assignments. One way of finding out where you are wasting time or could be using your time more productively is by creating a master schedule:


You literally map out every hour of every day (weekends included) and create a “big picture” of how you spend your time. You will then be able to see what time you have available for studying / working on assignments, where you are maybe wasting time and, where you could perhaps get more time from during particularly busy periods.

2. Pay attention in lectures

You don’t realise it but your lecturers drop hints and clues throughout their lectures about what is important and may be coming up in the next exam or assignment – if you pay close enough attention you will notice them:

  • writing notes / keywords on the whiteboard
  • repeating something over and over in a lesson, or over a period of time
  • literally saying the words: “This is important”
  • their tone of voice or gestures when address a particular concept or topic
  • assigning specific readings or textbook chapters

3. Take notes during lectures…and use them

Taking notes during lectures means you are actively engaging and thinking about what is being presented. By re-writing the notes after the class you will not only be reinforcing the information but you will also be able to organise it in an understandable manner; highlighting keywords or concepts that the lecturer paid special attention to.

4. Really study

Studying is not about reading your textbook and notes over and over again in the hopes that the information will magically transport itself to your memory, so that you can regurgitate it into your answer book during the exam.

Studying means knowing and understanding concepts and theories and how they relate and interact. At college level you will very seldom (if ever) be expected to merely memorise and regurgitate information; instead you are required to analyse, apply and organise the information you have learned into a response that adequately addresses the question that is asked.

Relaxation Techniques

The use of relaxation techniques is often recommended for the treatment of anxiety. There are a variety of techniques that can be used, we will be looking at two particular exercises:

  • Deep breathing
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Deep breathing:

When you are relaxed you tend to take longer and deeper breaths versus when you are anxious your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Deep breathing exercises reverses this, sending a message to your brain telling it to calm the body.

Deep breathing is a technique which becomes more effective with practice as your body will learn to read the signs that it needs to relax and calm down.


  • You can be sitting or standing, just make sure you are relaxed (no tensed muscles) before you begin.
  • Make sure your hands are relaxed, your knees are soft, and your shoulders and jaw are relaxed.
  • Breathe in slowly through your nose – counting in your head for five beats as you breathe in, keep your shoulders down and allow your stomach to expand as you breathe in.
  • Hold your breath for 5 – 10 beats – you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable but you should be holding your breath for a little longer than you normally would.
  • Breathe out slowly and smoothly for 5 – 10 beats.
  • Repeat until you feel calm.


Progressive Muscle Relaxation:

When a person is stressed or anxious they tend to tense their muscles resulting in feelings of stiffness and sometimes even pain in the back, shoulders and / or neck. Progressive muscle relaxation teaches you how to become aware of where you store your tension and to release it.


  • Find a quiet, private room.
  • Lie down on your back, making sure you are comfortable. You may want to put a pillow behind your head. Take your shoes off and make sure you are wearing comfortable, loose fitting clothes.
  • You are now going to intentionally tense each of your muscle groups, and then relax them, starting with your feet and working your way up the body.


  • Tense the muscles in your toes – curl them into your foot – take note of how this feels – hold the position for 5 seconds.
  • Relax your toes – notice how they feel different in the relaxed state.
  • Tense the muscles in your calves – hold it for 5 seconds – notice the feeling of tension in your leg.
  • Relax your calves – notice how the feeling of relaxation differs
  • Tense your knees – pull the knee caps upwards – hold the pose for 5 seconds – notice the feeling of tension in your knees.
  • Relax the knees – notice the feeling of relaxation.

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  • Repeat the pattern of tensing and releasing working upwards through your body: thighs, buttocks, pelvic floor, stomach, fingers, hands, forearms, upper arms, shoulders, neck, face.
  • No other muscle group should be tensed when focusing on a particular area.
  • Make sure that the room you are in is quiet and comfortable, so that you can concentrate on the feeling of tension and relaxation without any disturbances.
  • You may feel sleepy after (or you may even fall asleep during) this exercise.


The breathing and relaxation techniques provided in this post are for informational purposes only. Please consult your family doctor before beginning any new exercise or relaxation programme. This is particularly important if you have any pre-existing health conditions.


Therapist Aid.com (n.d.). Relaxation Techniques. Retrieved from: http://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-worksheet/relaxation-techniques/anxiety/adults. [Accessed: 19 April 2016].

University of Alabama. (n.d.). Dealing with Test Anxiety. Retrieved from: http://www.ctl.ua.edu/CTLStudyAids/StudySkillsFlyers/TestPreparation/testanxiety.htm. [Accessed: 09 May 2016].

Watson, J. (2015). Avoiding Test Anxiety – Tip Sheet. Retrieved from: https://www.butte.edu/departments/cas/tipsheets/studystrategies/test_anxiety.html. [Accessed: 09 May 2016].

Weimer, M. (2016). Test Anxiety: Causes and Remedies. Retrieved from: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/test-anxiety-causes-and-remedies/ . [Accessed: 09 May 2016].



How to Reduce Worrying: Part 4

Today is the final installment in our series on How to Reduce Worrying. We finish off with looking at additional strategies to help you get your worrying under control.


Use Your Worry Period for Problem Solving

When you start your worry period (refer to Part 3 for an explanation of what a “Worry Period” is) there are several strategies that can be used to make it particularly helpful. Just the fact of having a worry period will make it possible to postpone worries during other times.

The worry period can be used to start reducing the strength of your worrying habit. Use the worry period to list the worries you have and then to distinguish between those worries which you can do something about and those that are out of your control.

For those worries that you can do something about, use the worry period for problem solving and decision making:

  • What steps can you take to reduce the likelihood of the bad event happening?
  • Is there information you can find that will give you a better understanding of the chances of such an event happening or information that can help you come up with a solution or alternative?

Talk to someone about your concerns and get their perspective on the reasonableness of the worry or possible solutions. Decide on possible actions you can implement over the next few days that may reduce the likelihood of the bad event happening.

Cognitive Restructuring

You can also use the worry period to work on cognitive restructuring – this involves several steps:

  1. Identify the specific thoughts that you have when you worry. What is it, exactly, that you are saying to yourself when you are worrying? Write these thoughts down. Your observation of those worries during the day should provide you with the information you need for this exercise.
  2. Take each thought and logically analyse it. That is, what is the evidence for that thought? What is the probability of it actually happening? Has the event happened before? Is it reasonable or logical to predict that the event will happen, based on the evidence you have?
  3. Even if the event does happen, will you be able to handle it? What actions can you take to minimise the effects? Have you handled similar situations in the past without terrible consequences? A year after the event, should it  happen, what difference will it make by then?
  4. As you answer these questions, find those that indicate that the likelihood of things working out all right is good and that you would have ways of coping with the event should it happen. Create new thoughts from these and write them down next to the relevant worrisome thoughts you wrote down previously.

Use these new, more adaptive and reasonable thoughts whenever you catch one of the worrisome thoughts intruding during the day. At first the new thoughts may not ring true in comparison to the old worrisome thoughts. Remind yourself that they are true, based on your logical evidence based analysis. They will, with repeated practice, start to feel truer as you use them to replace the worrisome thoughts and as you catch them earlier and earlier.

For some worries, it may be useful during your worry period to ask yourself: “What is the worst thing that can happen?” Sometimes it turns out not to be so terrible, that you would survive it, that you would be able to handle it and then move on with your life. The future is sometimes scary because it is unknown. By looking at known and likely possible outcomes, the future becomes less scary.

Track the Outcome of Your Worries

There is another useful piece of information that you can gather during your worry period each day:

  • Write down every event that you’re worried about and list next to it the possible outcome (good and bad) that may happen
  • Keep that list until the event actually happens and see what outcome occurred
  • Do this for every outcome that comes along and keep track of how often things actually turned out good, bad or indifferent, and whether you handled the outcome well or not

Over time you will be able to collect your own evidence about your worries and your ability to cope with events that you are worried about.

It is very likely that you find that few things really turn out badly or that, even when they do, you are capable of handling them quite well. Such evidence will increase your confidence in yourself and your trust that, whatever the future holds, you will be ready for it.



California State University. (n.d.). How to Reduce Worrying. Retrieved from:  http://www.csun.edu/sites/default/files/how-to-reduce-worrying.pdf [Accessed on: 13 October 2014].