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Keeping Cool During Exams

Adina Glickman


Your body, unfortunately, doesn’t know the difference between the experience of meeting a mountain lion on a hike and taking exam. To your central nervous system, both the lion and the exam perceive that your life is in danger. So up goes the heart rate, out comes the adrenaline, and down goes your cognitive acuity. When it comes to exams, you are in charge of your central nervous system.

Before the exam

  • Writing about your anxiety prior to the exam can actually help lessen it. If you’re not sure you’re studying right, here are some suggestions. And a few more. But once you know you are studying well and are actually prepared for the exam, about 30 minutes before the exam starts, work a problem or read something interesting in the discipline you’re being tested on. The point of this isn’t to cram. It’s to get your head into the right place, and remember how to think like an economist or historian or physicist. It’s a cognitive warm-up: not too strenuous but gets the blood moving.
  • If you’re a high-anxiety exam-taker, you’ll need to practice deep and slow breathing on a regular basis so that you can use it when you experience test anxiety.

During the exam

  • Regular anxiety is normal
    Taking an exam is a heightened experience. The fact that there is a time limit, and that to some degree your grade will emerge from your performance, create a sense of vigilance and alertness. The subjective feeling of being slightly pumped (this is your adrenaline speaking) and sharp can also carry uneasiness and uncertainty. At this regular anxiety level, your job is to take several slow, deep breaths. Doing so will send more oxygen to your brain, thus restoring your cognitive acuity. Most people tolerate uneasiness and uncertainty. Note: tolerating uneasiness and uncertainty doesn’t mean things feel easy and certain, it means things feel uneasy and uncertain and you can sit with it.
  • High anxiety is not unexpected
    Higher anxiety is when your central nervous system is extremely activated. In addition to the heart-a-pumping, you might feel flushed, sick to your stomach, have sweaty hands, or feel like your chest is tight. Now is the time to employ those skills you’ve been practicing: breathe deep and slow, draw your attention to your breathing so your body has a chance to support the chilling of your central nervous system.


Photo by Josh Rakower on Unsplash