How to manage the anxiety of exam results

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How to manage the anxiety of exam results

How to manage the anxiety of exam results

By Dr Francesca Sawer
Just as the anxiety of the exams is behind you, you’ve started to enjoy your summer holidays and put the end of term and all mention of exams to the back of your mind, the day of results is suddenly here. You notice the familiar rumbling of anxiety and the self-doubt starts to creep in.

At the time of preparing for and taking your exams, anxiety is usually triggered by uncertainty. Uncertainty of what you’ll be asked, how you’ll cope and perform, coupled with the imagined or often real pressures or expectations that you set for yourself or set by others, perhaps your parents, teachers and the systems related to your next steps such as entry requirements. When you feel anxious, it is common to try to control things around you, be that by revising furiously (convincing yourself that if you revise absolutely every possibility then you’ll be able to answer anything that is asked) or perhaps by avoiding your revision, not looking at the material that seems to be causing your anxiety.

So just like exam anxiety, exam result anxiety  is also a result of uncertainty; be that the uncertainty of what grades you’ll get, whether your grades will be enough, coupled with the expectations of yourself, parents/teachers and the fear that if you don’t meet this then you’ll have disappointed or let someone down. So how to manage this?
Firstly, anxiety is a normal emotion to experience around both exams and exam results time, but there are still some things that you can do to try and make the anxiety feel more manageable and stop it consuming your life.

Worrying has no useful benefits
It sounds obvious, but the important thing to try and hold in mind is that you can’t change the results. Therefore worrying about it, wishing things had gone differently and ruminating over particular questions is all a waste of your energy and only likely to increase your feelings of anxiety.

Until the moment you have the results in your hand, any scenario is hypothetical
Any decisions you may need to make or feelings of disappointment you imagine you might feel, need to be postponed until the time that you have the results in your hand. Imagined failure and decisions are all hypothetical and are not fact at this stage, and therefore unhelpful.

You don’t have to put on a brave face, feel whatever you need to
On the day of results if things haven’t gone as planned it’s okay to feel upset or disappointed. These emotions are just as valid as feeling happy. Emotions are transitory so however disappointed you might feel, remember that you won’t be feeling that way forever. You’ll get through it and look back at it as a minor stumbling block on your life’s journey.

Alternative options are different but not necessarily worse or second best
There is always another option. It may feel like the end of the world that you cannot move onto the next step in your life as initially planned. This uncertainly (there it is again) will cause your anxiety to kick in again, but any alternative decisions should be viewed as “different” not as second best or worse. Whatever you decide to do next can be as good as you make it.

Time of heightened emotion is not the time to make decisions

It’s important, that if you do have some disappointing results, that you don’t make any rash decisions in the moment you are feeling most disappointed and anxious. Heightened emotions can shut down your rational thinking. Therefore focus on allowing yourself to be disappointed and upset and once these emotions have run their course and start to calm, you can start to think about the next steps for you.

You are not on your own
There will be plenty of professional support and experts to best advise you of your options, whether that be from careers advisors, teachers or universities, so utilise this support and don’t sit on your own with big decisions.

Comparison with others, may make it harder for you to move on
Although it’s easier said than done, try not to compare yourself to others. We naturally use others as a bench mark (as do exam boards), but another person’s results should not be your concern, as you are not living their life and your circumstances are completely different. It can be disappointing when a friend or peer has done better in an exam, especially when others are keen to show off their achievements, but jealousy and envy may make it even harder for you to move on and make positive decisions for yourself. Whilst feelings of envy are difficult to sit with, these emotions are also transitory and will pass in their own time too.

Managing anxiety
On results day, you may need to take some time to be by yourself, away from the crowds.  It’s amazing how much other people’s anxiety can be felt by others around them and if you’re anxious yourself it may be unhelpful to be surrounded by other anxious peers.

It’s the old cliché of breathing, but when you’re anxious it is likely that your breathing will shorten and increase so taking a few minutes to take some deep breathes can be calming. You can also take a few minutes to ground yourself; look around the room remind yourself of who you are and all the other parts of your life. Exam results are a tiny part of you, your achievements and your life. You’ll look back in 10, 20, 30 years and want to give the younger version of yourself some reassurance that it will be okay.

Challenge your unhelpful thoughts
Negative thinking and self-critical talk is very easily activated at times of stress, anxiety or disappointment, both before your results and after. “I’m a failure” “I should have worked harder” “everyone will think I’m stupid” are some of the most common negative automatic thoughts that are activated at these times. It is important to remember that thoughts are not facts and dwelling on these negative thoughts will likely make you feel worse about yourself and your situation.  Sometimes it can be helpful to challenge your negative automatic thoughts to get a more balanced perspective on the situation. Just to be clear that doesn’t mean you have to “think positively” or tell yourself you’ve done amazingly if you haven’t. Instead you need to be fair on yourself.  Imagine talking to a friend who is beating themselves up about something and you know that are forgetting some important information that goes against what they are saying, you would try to put forward information to challenge their ideas and you can do this for yourself too.

If your negative thoughts are around being “a failure”, you will often be able to remember all the other times that you have been “a failure” and by only looking at these examples you strengthen your belief in the thought “I’m a failure”. When we challenge our thoughts we look at both “evidence for and evidence against” to give yourself a balanced picture upon which to find an alternative and fairer thought upon which you can move forward.
Talk to someone
Finally, if you’re feeling overwhelmed and like you can’t cope with your anxiety or disappointment talk to someone, be that a parent, a teacher, a friend or a health care professional.