From education to employment

How to deal with Exam stress

someone holding an exam paper with students sat at desks in the background

Mental health Counsellor and CEO of Mind Management For You Sheila McMahon offers some insight and perspective on ‘How to deal with Exam stress’.

It’s a time when some people will be doing their GCSEs, some will be doing college exams and some doing other exams like their masters.

Whoever you are, if you are doing or working towards exams, it can be very stressful. I’d like to offer some perspective and insight, in the hope that you might find my article helpful.

Fear of failure

A lot of people are afraid of failure – but what is failure? Failure is learning. Failure is trial and error. Failure is giving something a go that might have highlighted that it wasn’t for you. We can choose how we see failure. Personally, I see it as being useful – as it’s only by trial and error that I find out what I am naturally good at, or want to do.

When we are in school, we often feel forced to do subjects that we might have no interest in – that we might not even like! So, how do we get past this?

Focus on the overall goal

You may not like some subjects, that is natural, but you may want to pass them for what that can mean and achieve for you. Passing your GCSEs, or achieving certain grades, or passing exams, may mean you can go on to do other things that you want to do.

Plan a reward!

Whether you pass your exams or not, I encourage you, that if you decide to give the exam or exams a go, to plan a reward after giving it a go. Think about something to look forward too, something that when you think about it, it fills you up with excitement. I would encourage you to do this event before you find out your results.

Your exams results do not define you

We often hear stories of entrepreneurs who didn’t pass their exams and went on to be high successful people. If you want to be highly successful, then passing exams is only one way of achieving this. If you don’t want to be highly successful, then that is fine too. I often counsel highly successful businesspeople who now wish they had a much easier job – without responsibility, without the pressure of success and just had a simpler life!

Learning styles

Working as a counsellor, I often hear stories of how confusing and frustrating learning can be. It can be important to be aware of your learning styles. I am a visual learner, so if I look at a book that has only words in it, it will take me ages to read it! If this book has pictures, I will read that book in half the time and retain a lot more of the information. People who are kinaesthetic learners may need to get their hands stuck in to experience the learning. Some people are auditory which means they may learn well by hearing instructions and sounds. I have often heard adults blame themselves for not doing well in school, when sometimes the way things were taught to them did not engage them, or the style of teaching didn’t suit them. I talk about leaning styles as part of communication styles in my current ‘Tip of the Week’ videos on my You Tube Channel. You can watch my current video here.

You can do it again!

There are so many opportunities now to relearn and do subjects that interest you at another time. This time may not be the right time for you. Some people can repeat a year again. If that is what is needed, then so be it. It’s been an horrendous 2 years for some, who have been on an emotional rollercoaster dealing with the pandemic, so to expect everyone to do well in exams can be unrealistic. Each individual person will have their own separate story and its important not to make comparisons. Only you know what you have been through.


You can use affirmations. Affirmations are positive statements. You can decide to say positive statements to yourself like ‘I am doing my best and that is good enough’ or ‘The exams do not define who I am’. You are still a worthy, beautiful human being regardless of whatever results you get.

Keeping calm

If you want to keep calm, then you can focus on your breathing. You can try rectangular breathing where you breathe in for 4, pause for 2 seconds, breathe out for 5 and repeat. You can see a video of me doing this on my YouTube Channel here.

If this doesn’t work, then you can find a breathing exercise that might work for you. You may even want to give my 5 minutes guided relaxation a go. You can check it out here.

A different perspective

I came across this letter via on perspective.

It’s a letter from a student to her parents.

Dear Mom and Dad,

      It has now been three months since I left for college. I am

 sorry for my thoughtlessness in not having written before. I will

 bring you up to date but before you read on you had better sit down.


      I am getting along pretty well now. The skull fracture and

 concussion I got when I jumped out of my apartment window when it

 caught fire after my arrival here is pretty well healed. I only spent

 two weeks in the hospital and now I can see almost normally and only

 get these sick headaches once a day. Fortunately, the fire and my jump

 were witnessed by Roger an attendant at the gas station, and he was

 the one who called the fire department. He also visited me in the

 hospital, and since I had nowhere to live he was kind enough to invite

 me to share his apartment with him. He is a very fine man, and we are

 planning to get married. We haven’t set the date yet, but it will be

 before my pregnancy begins to show. His divorce is final now, and he

 shares custody of his 3 children.

      The reason for the delay in our marriage is that Roger has a

 minor infection which prevents us from passing our premarital blood

 tests, and I carelessly caught it from him. This will soon clear up

 with the penicillin injections I am taking daily.

      Now that I have brought you up to date I want to tell you that

 there was no fire, I did not have a concussion or skull fracture, I was

 not in the hospital, I am not pregnant, I am not engaged, I do not have

 syphilis, and there is no divorced man in my life. However, I am

 getting a “D” in Art and an “F” in Biology and I wanted you to see

 these marks in the proper perspective.

Your loving daughter,


Source: .

So, for all of you doing exams, I wish you well, and remember ‘You can only do your best and that is good enough’.

For more tips and advice please visit Sheila’s YouTube channel, Sheila’s website at, follow Sheila on any of her social media platforms, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn, call 07799 791537 or email [email protected]

As well as being a private counsellor Sheila also delivers talks and training courses for education providers, in schools and for organisations, businesses and at events.

Sheila McMahon

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