Exam Stress: No Worries!

Table of Contents

Part I: Why do some people get anxious and not others?

Chapter 1: Why exams can make students anxious

What is anxiety?

How much anxiety is too much?

Are you chronically anxious or exam-phobic?

Chapter summary

Chapter 2: Why students have different responses to exams


Borrowed patterns

Messages can be ‘borrowed’ from any significant person

Care-giving behaviour is not always good for us

Child patterns

Dealing with our childhood messages

Adult insight

Adult insight doesn’t equal boring

No-one is perfect


Scripts are maintained unless we change our act

Script systems

Following is a brief summary of the common reactions exp-erienced for each aspect of the script system.

Beliefs and feelings

Outward behaviours

Internal bodily experiences

Reinforcing memories and fantasies

Putting patterns and scripts together

Chapter summary

Part II: Why do I get anxious about exams?

Chapter 3: Discovering the causes of your exam anxiety



Finding your borrowed patterns

Exercise 1: discovering your borrowed patterns

Exercise 2: discovering your borrowed patterns related to exam anxiety

Finding your child patterns

Exercise 3: childhood memories

Exercise 4: looking at old photographs

Exercise 5: favourite stories or fantasies from childhood

Exercise 6: comparing childhood emotions with the ones you feel now

Exercise 7: identifying child patterns surrounding exams

Exercises to connect with both borrowed and child patterns

Exercise 8: role-play talking to significant people in your life about exams

Exercise 9: identifying how your borrowed and child patterns work together

How much adult insight are you currently using?

Exercise 10: estimating the current level of adult insight you use when dealing with exams

Figuring out your script and its system

Exercise 11: identifying the content of your script and how you maintain it

The good news

Chapter summary

Part III: How do I get rid of my exam anxiety?

Chapter 4: How to change your internal bodily experiences

The effects of exams on your body

Exercise 12: understanding your physical early warning signs

Exercise 13: your promise to yourself

Chapter summary

Chapter 5: How to change your behaviour

The effects of exams on your behaviour

Exercise 14: understanding your behavioural early warning signs

Exercise 15: understanding why you struggle to ask for help

Hint: get emotional support

Hint: set up a peer study group

Hint: find out what to do if you get stuck on a question in the exam

Planning and managing your time

Exercise 16: how well do you currently manage your time?

Hint: set realistic goals and achieve them

Hint: set a realistic revision timetable

Exercise 17: how to make a revision timetable

Planning a study session

Hint: warm up before you sit down

Hint: centre yourself before and after a revision session

Hint: short study sessions help memory

Hint: make use of half-hour time slots

Revising while coping with a crisis or major event in your life

Hint: vary the way you revise

Hint: recall, recall, recall

Look after yourself

Exercise 18: your promise to yourself

Chapter summary

Chapter 6: How to change your beliefs and feelings

The effects of beliefs and feelings on your exams

Exercise 19: bringing your ‘negativity’ together

Exercise 20: creating a new influential person in your head

Exercise 21: writing a letter to the child in you

Exercise 22: challenging your negative thoughts

Exercise 23: role-play telling your influential people how you are going to think, feel and behave differently towards exams

Chapter summary

Chapter 7: How to change your memories and fantasies

Reinforcing memories

Exercise 24: overpowering negative memories with more positive ones

Reinforcing fantasies

Exercise 25: overpowering negative fantasies with more positive ones

Chapter summary

Part IV: How do I cope the two big P's?

Chapter 8: Coping with perfectionism

Isn’t it good to be a perfectionist?

Exercise 26: estimating your perfectionist tendencies

Exercise 27: identifying the advantages and disadvantages of being a perfectionist

Exercise 28: understanding your perfectionist tendencies and their effects

Part B: identifying what you learned from this exercise

Making sure your goals are not driven by perfectionism

Exercise 29: challenging your perfectionist tendencies

Exercise 30: keeping your perfectionist tendencies in check

Chapter summary

Chapter 9: Stop procrastinating!

What exactly is procrastination?

Exercise 31: estimating your procrastination tendencies

How do you procrastinate?

Exercise 32: discovering how you procrastinate

Why do you procrastinate?

Exercise 33: identifying why you procrastinate

The advantages and disadvantages of procrastinating

Exercise 34: identifying the advantages and disadvantages of procrastinating

Combating procrastination

Exercise 35: keeping your procrastination tendencies in check

Chapter summary

Part V: But I don't feel like a 'typical' student

Chapter 10: Special hints for students mixing work or other commitments and study

Time management is crucial

Exercise 36: estimating how well you use your time

Exercise 37: finding out if you use your time in your preferred way

Exercise 38: estimating how much time you spend on each subject

Patterns, script systems and the busy student

Exercise 39: estimating how much adult insight you used when deciding to take on so much

Hint: how to juggle study and work or other large commitments

Exercise 40: consolidating the ideas you gained from this chapter

Chapter summary

Chapter 11: Special hints for off-campus students

Don’t drop out!

Time management for off-campus students

Studying in isolation

Communicating with those close to you

Patterns, script systems and the off-campus student

Exercise 41: understanding how your patterns and script hinder your study in the off-campus mode

Extra hints for off-campus students

Exercise 42: consolidating your new ideas about off-campus study

Chapter summary

Chapter 12: Special hints for mature-age students

Options of entry for mature-age students

Special issues for mature-age students

Some research on mature-age students

Patterns, scripts and the mature-age student

Borrowed patterns

Child patterns

Script system issues

Extra hints for mature-age students

A final word for mature-age students

Chapter summary

Chapter 13: Special hints for international students

Dealing with homesickness

Typical pressures on international students

Exercise 46: identifying the pressures you face as an international student

Adjustment takes time

Patterns, script systems and the international student

Extra hints for international students

Exercise 47: final reminders for international students

Chapter summary

Chapter 14: Special hints for students who have migrated to Australia or who come from migrant families

Exercise 48: identifying the pressures you face as a migrant

The good news!

Exercise 49: recognising the positives of being a migrant student

Patterns, script systems and the migrant student

Extra hints for migrant students

Exercise 50: final reminders for migrant students

Chapter summary

Part VI: My exams have arrived!

Chapter 15: Final advice

Exercise 51: summing up what you have learned from this book

Exercise 52: finding out if this book worked for you

Chapter summary

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First published 2009 by Wrightbooks

an imprint of John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd

42 McDougall Street, Milton Qld 4064

Office also in Melbourne

Typeset in Berkeley LT 11.5/14.5pt

© Su Dorland 2009

The moral rights of the author have been asserted

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication data:

Author: Dorland, Su.

Title: Exam stress? No worries! / Su Dorland.

ISBN: 9781742169583 (pbk.)

Notes: Includes index.


Subjects: Test anxiety.

Test anxiety — Prevention.

Test-taking skills.

Stress management.

Dewey Number: 371.26019

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (for example, a fair dealing for the purposes of study, research, criticism or review), no part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, communicated or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission. All inquiries should be made to the publisher at the address above.

Printed in China by Printplus Limited

CD recording by Brett Van Hoorn, Van Hoorn Music. Warning: listening to the accompanying CD may cause drowsiness or reduced awareness. While listening, avoid tasks that require alertness.

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The material in this publication is of the nature of general comment only, and does not represent professional advice. It is not intended to provide specific guidance for particular circumstances and it should not be relied on as the basis for any decision to take action or not take action on any matter which it covers. Readers should obtain professional advice where appropriate, before making any such decision. To the maximum extent permitted by law, the author and publisher disclaim all responsibility and liability to any person, arising directly or indirectly from any person taking or not taking action based upon the information in this publication.

About the author

Su Dorland has been a full-time, part-time, off-campus and mature-age student in both England and Australia. She started her career as a sociologist, teaching in schools, colleges and universities. Since deciding to retrain as a psychologist and counsellor, she has spent more than 30 years working as a counsellor in tertiary settings. One of her specialities is helping students deal with their exam anxiety.

Su is a Fellow of the Australia and New Zealand Student Services Association and a member of the Australian Psycho-logical Society and its College of Counselling Psychologists. In addition, she is a certified Clinical Transactional Analyst (TA) and has also trained in other therapeutic modalities. She has continually refined her ideas, based on transactional analysis and cognitive behaviour therapy, into a package that works for students.

Su lives with her husband, John Davies, on the idyllic far-north coast of New South Wales, where she works part-time in a private practice and writes.


This book is the product of many years spent working as a counsellor in educational settings and is based on my training in various therapeutic modalities, including transactional analysis (TA). I have adapted relevant parts of TA theory with the view to making the book easily understood. I acknowledge that TA is an extremely complex theory of personal change and that the book doesn’t reflect this complexity. It was not meant to.

Thanks to the students, colleagues and professional friends that commented on various drafts of this book. These people include Anna Weatherly (whose valuable professional input has been available to me throughout the whole process), Anne Gates, Rosie McKellar, Margaret Stimpson, Kirsty Taylor, Brigid Ballard and Lilian Wissink. Thanks also to Sue Burton for her comments on the CD scripts and to Eileen Corrigan for some technical assistance.

Mary Masters from John Wiley & Sons recognised the book’s potential from a publisher’s perspective, and Jana Adzic’s remarkable editing skills have been invaluable in polishing the final text. The Wiley team’s insight and high level of professional competence as they steered the book, and me, through the publishing process has been a rewarding experience in itself.

The writing process, from first idea to publishing, took more time than I originally expected due to unforseen circumstances. My husband, John Davies, gave me his total support and encouragement and helped me keep going until the end. I give him a very special thank you.

Preface: Is this book for you?

Worry a little bit every day and in a lifetime you will lose a couple of years. If something is wrong, fix it if you can. But train yourself not to worry. Worry never fixes anything.

— Mary Hemingway (1908–1986)

Do you:

• feel stressed, nervous, anxious, or even terrified before or during a written or oral exam?

• provide support to a friend, relative, student or client who fits the description above?

If so, this book and its accompanying CD are for you.

There is no need to be stressed out about exams. It is possible to get rid of your exam anxiety forever. And the skills you will learn from this book will also transfer to other aspects of your life, such as job interviews, driving tests, public speaking, or any other situation where high stress levels can get in the way of you doing your personal best.

I have written this book for students who get stressed about their exams, their support people (who could be counsellors, teachers, therapists, friends or relatives), and for those who are simply curious as to why people get so stressed out over exams. For simplicity’s sake, I have addressed the book to students, but anyone can read it. You can work through it alone, or you may like to do so with someone else, such as a friend or counsellor.

This book is relevant for students in their final year at school, college students, university students, or students doing short courses that involve exams. It is also suitable for prospective students. Basically, whatever type of student you are and whatever type of course you are doing, if you get stressed about exams this is the book for you.

When you are stressed, nervous, anxious, or even terrified about exams do you:

• put off your revision?

• not plan your revision, or not stick to your plan?

• not take in what you are revising?

• get easily distracted?

• feel tired during the day for no apparent reason?

• find it difficult to sleep as the exam approaches?

• go ‘blank’ in the exam room or dread doing so?

• become unable to speak or think clearly in an oral exam?

• find yourself working out how you can best claim a handicap to get some sort of special consideration or postpone the exam?

• desperately want to avoid failure because you would find it so hard to admit that you failed?

• tell yourself that life won’t be worth living if you don’t pass?

• tell yourself you are not going to pass, or not pass well enough?

• worry that you will let someone down if you fail?

• get an upset stomach, or other physical problems, as the exam approaches?

• think about past exam failures?

• want to drop out of your course?

If any of the above sounds familiar, then this book and acc-ompanying CD can help you change your thinking, feelings and behaviour.

In the weeks before an exam you may also have found yourself doing one or more of the following:

• arguing more often with your partner, parents, friends, children or colleagues

• feeling more emotional than usual — for example, crying more easily

• constantly checking things that the rational side of you knows there is no need to check — for example, that the front door is locked

• eating less or more than usual

• drinking more alcohol or taking other drugs, including over-the-counter medication

• starting to develop odd habits, such as scratching yourself

• breaking up with your girlfriend, boyfriend or partner

• having accidents you could have avoided

• spending more time on the internet or writing unimportant emails

• cleaning your room or house more often.

All sorts of feelings and events start crawling out of the woodwork around exam time. As exams draw closer, some students start to experience more problems than usual. On the surface, these problems may not seem directly related to exams; however, as we get more anxious, our thoughts, feelings and behaviour can change quite dramatically, and other aspects of our lives can be badly affected. When we are anxious we can miss making the connection between our anxiety and the fact that we are facing difficult problems in our lives. We can even find ourselves in difficult personal situations around exam time and not even realise we are anxious about our exams! Knowing that it doesn’t have to be like this is what inspired me to write this book.

How anxious do you get about exams?

Rate yourself on the following scale before you read any further. You will need to rate yourself again once you have worked through the book and completed at least one exam, so that you can monitor your improvement. You will have a chance to do this in chapter 15.

In the following table circle the number that best corresponds to your anxiety when your exams are close, and when you’re actually taking an exam.

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Research into exam anxiety consistently shows that a large number of students suffer from exam anxiety, whether they are at school, college or university. In other words, being anxious about exams is a common problem. It has also been shown that suffering from exam anxiety can significantly lower your results. Do you think that your anxiety affects your exam results? Rate your answer in the following table.

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In need of a quick fix?

There is no magic wand to make your anxiety disappear completely, but I know that many of you picking up this book are looking for a ‘quick fix’ because your exams are close. The first-aid hints at the front of this book provide some emergency help for those who need it and who haven’t got time to read the whole book. These tips will probably not cure you of your exam anxiety, but may help you to get through your exams in the short term if they are very close. The first aid hints refer you to relevant pages in the book where you will see a bandaid splashed across the page.

These tips are more like bandaids than a cure.

Prefer a permanent cure?

If you want your exam anxiety to go away for good I recom-mend that you take a closer look at this book once the pressure of exams has lifted. You will need to take a longer-term approach and work your way through the book in its entirety for a permanent cure. This will help you understand why you get anxious and address the cause of your anxiety. You will need to read, complete the exercises and listen to the CD, and do so when you are not in a panic about exams — perhaps when you’re on holidays or during semester break. Remember that exam anxiety will only disappear completely if you address what’s causing it. Give yourself time to do this and you will get rid of your exam stress once and for all.

Twenty-first-century students — a mixed bunch

As a student you might be at school, college or university. These days, as well as studying at different types of institutions, students are a mixed bunch in other ways. For example, you might be:

• a full-time student who works part-time

• a part-time student who may or may not be working full-time

• a student studying through the off-campus mode

• a mature-aged student (aged 21 and over)

• an Australian student where English is not your first language or not normally spoken at home

• an international student who intends to go home after completing your course

• a combination of some of the above.

All students are under a certain amount of pressure that differs depending on the type of student they are. These pressures may be external (from parents, school, friends and so on) and add to the internal pressures we put on ourselves. Some examples of external pressure are financial problems, lack of time, exams that are worth 100 per cent of assessment, or the pressure to get a high mark to get a particular job. This book in no way discounts the very real pressures that come from the outside. You may have taken time out of paid employment to get your qualification, or you may need to get a reasonable mark in order to continue with further study. Luckily, you can learn ways to avoid letting these pressures get on top of you.

This is not another study skills book

There are plenty of study skills books around, but this is not one of them. Rather, it is about the external and internal pressures students face with regards to exams, and, more importantly, what students can do about them. This book concentrates only on the study skills that are designed to prevent exam anxiety — it won’t teach you how to write essays or read more efficiently. (If you do want to improve these types of skills, refer to the list of books on study skills in the further reading section at the end of the book.)

How to use the accompanying CD

Track 1 is an introduction by me.

Track 2 contains instructions on how to calm down on the spot. This technique is often referred to as ‘centering’ and is useful for any occasion where you may feel uptight, such as just before you sit down to study, just before an exam or just before an oral presentation of some sort. This technique is also transferable to other situations where you could feel nervous, such as going to a job interview or walking in to a room full of strangers.

Track 3 is to be used on a regular basis in the lead-up to your exam. It contains a relaxation sequence followed by an imaginary journey (often called a visualisation) of you successfully taking the exam. When you can listen to this track and remain positive, relaxed and focused throughout your imaginary journey, you should feel the same way when actually taking an exam.

Track 4 will help you get a good night’s sleep and should be put on when you are ready to go to bed. It is the last track on the CD so that you can listen and fall asleep as it plays without being woken by a following track.

Warning: listening to this CD may cause drowsiness or reduced awareness. While listening, avoid tasks that require alertness.

A word of warning

Some chapters, particularly chapter 2, contain pencil and paper exercises for you to complete in a notebook. You must keep your notebook handy and take your time to do these because it is only by completing them thoughtfully and honestly that they will work for you. No-one needs to see your answers — they are not exams!

Some exercises ask you to search quite deeply into particular parts of your life, and you could find this quite uncomfortable or confronting. It is not my intention to make you feel this way, but if you do you will probably have found the reason for your exam anxiety. This is a positive thing because you can then go on to do something about it! On the other hand, if you feel threatened by any of the exercises I suggest you stop and get help to deal with your feelings. Talk to an understanding friend, a relative or a counsellor. Most educational institutions have counsellors you can talk to about what you’re going through, and they can also point you in the direction of any other local resources.

Journeys of self-discovery can be exciting, fun and, at times, challenging. By the end of your journey with me I hope that you will come to see that exams are not the huge obstacle or monster you previously thought them to be.

Keep in mind one of my favourite quotes, by Joseph Goldstein: ‘You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf’.

Let’s get started!

Part I: Why do some people get anxious and not others?

A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety.

—Aesop (620BC–560BC)

Part I of this book has two chapters. Chapter 1 will give you enough information about anxiety to help you understand why exams can make students anxious. Chapter 2 explains why we react to exams in different ways. In chapter 2 you will be introduced to some ideas that students have found to be particularly useful in helping to change their attitude towards exams. There are also plenty of case studies to help you understand the ideas.

For students to be successful they usually have to pass exams, and many find the big ‘e’ word scary, if not terrifying. This part of the book explores why some of us turn exams into our own personal monsters, while others seem to sail through and even enjoy them.

Part I of this book will explain why these different reactions to exams occur.