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Beat Exam Nerves in 5 simple steps!

Updated: Jan 5, 2023

If you are really struggling to face your GCSEs, A levels, other examinations or assessments, please reach out and ask for help from someone you trust. Having someone in your corner who understands your needs, is the first step in getting yourself the right level of support. We are all different, which is why it is so important to help yourself by reaching out. Only you know what is really going on for you. Please don't leave it to friends or adults to guess because we don't always get it right.

Go to Additional Support for useful organisations and support information.

5 Top Tips to beat your Nerves

Here are my top tips for Exam or Performance Nerves:

1. Accept being nervous

It's happening, so let it flow over you and then it will subside more quickly.

It may seem obvious but it's amazing how often we all try and push away or ignore the things that we don't like. Whatever it is, it's not going anywhere until it's been acknowledged. No amount of wishing it away will make that happen faster for us. It needs facing, so we may as well get it over and done with because the anticipation of something and ruminating over it often makes it far worse than the reality of it. Being willing to learn and grow is all you need to get started. So let's discover what can be done. It's like the old tale 'Whatever you do, don't think of a pink elephant'.

Well now you have done it. Now you are thinking of two of them!

Our brains evolved to think about any keywords we say, even if only in our heads and treat them as important to us. Our primitive brains don't understand the word 'don't', so we automatically think of a pink elephant, we can't help ourselves. If we ask our brains not to think about a pink elephant, we are going to think of the very thing we are trying so hard not to do. The same applies to our nerves. If you sit there in an exam chanting in your head, 'don't be nervous', 'don't be nervous' our brains will pay extra attention to the fact that we ARE nervous, assume that we need help and are in danger and so our very helpful brains, prepare our bodies to run away, fight or freeze which is exactly what we don't want to happen when we want our thoughts to remain sharp and we need to sit still for a long time. The answer is not to resist feeling nervous, accept that it is happening, and understand that the sweaty hands, dry mouth or extra saliva, beating heart and feeling you want to hide, run away or throw your paper across the room are all valid and understandable responses. If we allow ourselves to feel that, just for a moment, recognise that and Breathe through it, it will calm back down again more quickly.

2. Breathe

Another obvious one you would think but in times of stress we can either land up shallow breathing making us feel light-headed and dizzy or even hold our breath so as not to make a sound and spook the elephant presumably. The best way to calm our nervous system is to take a deep breath in through the nose. Filling out lungs by belly breathing right from our diaphragm up into our rib cage and out again with a longer exhale of breath out through the mouth. This takes practice but in as little as 3 deep breaths we can calm ourselves enough to allow our nerves to subside.

Download an audio file of me demonstrating this technique here

Use Acupressure point LI20, on either side of your nostrils and up a bit to encourage more oxygen into your nasal cavity. For a video demonstration of how to do that click here.

The good news is that your heart pumping faster and an increased breath rate actually helps oxygenate the blood more and get it to the brain faster, allowing us to be able to think faster and more clearly which is a great thing.

3. Trick your brain into thinking you are happy

Because we are such social animals we use the muscles in our faces to display how we feel. If we feel happy we smile and that kicks off a chemical reaction in our brain and body that we are happy. The great news is that we don't have to actually feel happy, to kick the same process off. Depending on how empathetic you are, if you see someone else smile, you may automatically smile back without even thinking about it. A really simple way to trick our brains into thinking we are happy and send a signal to our brains that we are safe and well, is to pop a pen or pencil in our mouth, just like I am in the picture. Don't bite down on it and get ink everywhere or break your pencil but just hold it there for a few seconds and it will help calm your nerves. If putting something in your mouth like that is too embarrassing, simply smile to yourself instead but using a pen or pencil forces your facial muscles to pull a wider smile than you may normally do, improving the effectiveness of this simple trick, especially, if you are not feeling it. How can you possibly feel happy about wanting to run away? Depending on your exam rules you may be allowed to bring in something into the exam to help you release your nervous tension. It has to go somewhere. You often see people fidget, and nervously bounce their knees under the table. Using a stress ball or displaying other bodily ticks. Holding a Reflexology Point on your hand, snapping an elastic band on your wrist (as long as it's not noisy) are also ways that can help reduce nervous tension and make us feel happier about a situation.

4. Get Minty Fresh You may not be allowed sweets or gum in an exam but a great way to have a clear head before an exam is to have something minty just before if you can, like a breath mint. Have some mint tea if you like it or water with crushed mint leaves in it. If you have some mint in the garden then eat a couple of leaves. The mint helps clear your airways helping you breathe more easily and get more oxygen to the brain. Caffeine can also be useful. It needs to be done at the right time to be effective without impacting your sleep as well, and too much can leave you feeling jittery and wired which is not ideal either. But in small natural doses, from tea, coffee or chocolate it can be helpful. I would not personally take energy drinks with very high amounts of caffeine in them, but if you have not slept at all the night before an exam and you can't keep your eyes open, then it is an emergency option but be prepared for the fall out afterwards. The one and only time I used a high-caffeine drink like that, to stay awake during a work night shift, I came home, cleaned the house, hoovered, washed up, sorted cupboards, you name it, I did it. Other people may have gone for a run perhaps when they would have overwise been soundly sleeping. I then slept the whole next day. An experience not to be repeated for me.

5. Be Prepared

Easier said than done I know. Whether you are fully prepared or not, have revised your socks off or intend to do some last-moment cramming. Perhaps you intend to just wing it. Whether you are a genius or not. If you care about your exam performance and your grades, you WILL feel nervous at some point. I'm here to let you know, that feeling is OK and natural to have. Being nervous is OK. Accepting that, rather than trying to block it, stop it or 'get over it', 'suck it up' or any other unhelpful term to describe it is your first step to helping yourself to tame it or using NLP terminology, reframe it before exam nerves take a hold of you. There are things you can do to support yourself before your exam, other than the obvious revision. Here are just a few for you to try out.

  • Sleep It doesn't matter how much you revise, if you don't sleep, you will not remember a word of what you have revised. So the biggest favour you can do yourself, whether you revise a lot or cram the day before, is sleep between each chunk of information you are trying to remember, to help you to cement and consolidate more of what you have learnt into your memory. If you cram into the night and sacrifice your sleep, you are better off taking a nap the following day than pulling a complete all-nighter. It has been scientifically proven that napping helps with memory retention. Getting at least 7-9 hours of sleep a day (It doesn't have to be contiguous or in one sitting to be effective). Teens naturally wish to sleep in later and go to bed later. Working with, rather than against your natural body rhythms can really help. We all have different times of the day when we are most productive, so study at the best times for you, not when others say it's best. Why not study with friends and help each other stay on track? You may find evening revision easier than after a full lunch or first thing in the morning when your mind wishes it was still in bed. Taking restful breaks can be the next best thing to sleep. Breaking the revision you have to do into bite-sized chunks is more manageable and keeping it light and fun will also help you to retain the information more easily. For more sleep tips refer to my Sleep and Morning Routine Blog posts.

  • Different learning styles. Get to know your preferred learning style and use that. We all have very different learning styles, some of us love to read, while others hate it and would learn far better from pictures, graphics and visual infographic memory aids. Some people love structure, bullet points and lists, revision cards may be useful for this. Others learn through sound. Listening to audio may be more helpful for you. Record your revision with a voice app on your phone rather than make written notes if that is the case. Sing what you want to learn to yourself, and make a limerick to help you remember key information. Use colour, highlighters and for the people that love movement, why not dance to your favourite music while revising? Play hopscotch or skip to get that information in rhythmically. Keeping moving, and getting out in the fresh air can all help. Your environment can help you to learn too. Some people love to have music on, while others prefer quiet, be your kind of comfortable. Here is a questionnaire that may help you work out what your own unique learning style is if you don't already know, created by the Open University.

  • Water We all need it but our brains don't function at our best unless we remain fully hydrated, so making sure you have enough to drink is so important. If you are not a fan of water, add flavours but what is most important is that you don't impact your brain function by skipping what you need.

  • Eat well Our brains need the right nutrients too. Going into an exam without eating may make you feel less sick but it will mean your brain will not be performing at its best. Make sure then that you are awake early enough to eat before an exam so you have plenty of energy but not so close to the exam that you feel uncomfortably full or sick just before. For some great tips on what to eat, I recommend this blog by Time to Nourish.

  • Have fun and relax Being prepared is great but that doesn't mean you need to spend all your time doing it, in fact, doing less so that you can reward yourself and have fun can improve results. We learn far better and more, when it's fun and less serious. When we are stressed or anxious it can be far harder to rest, play and have fun, so it is so important to build that into your time too. Take a bubble bath or invigorating shower, watch your favourite show, or go and do an activity outside. Escape into a book if that's your thing, see friends, attend parties, cinema and go shopping. Avoid endless scrolling through social media though. Comparison, fake news and attention-grabbing sound bites are probably not the best idea at the moment.

  • Try Reflexology Trying something you have never done before can help too. If you are anxious, can't sleep or relax properly, then something immersive that occupies many of your senses like Reflexology can help. Want to stop your parents from fussing over you? Why not suggest they have a Reflexology session to relax about how you are doing? Therapeutic touch can be very reassuring and take your mind off your worries, allowing your body to reset and rebalance itself, leaving you better able to cope, and increase your resilience to exam nerves.

  • Keep moving If you love exercise, keep doing whatever you are doing. Don't skip the activities you love to make more time for revision. If you are not a fan, a walk will still help your brain function at its best.

Keeping things in perspective

I'll finish off this blog with a suggestion to try and keep things in perspective. Right now it may seem like the end of the world if you don't get the grades or pass the exam that you wish to achieve. But the truth is, that it is only a blip on the landscape of the rest of your life. Teachers may be making your exam results seem like the only thing in life that is important for you right now but that is only because they are trying to get the best results they can for you.

If you don't quite make the grade, attain this one goal right now, it doesn't need to define who you are. There are many people, including myself, who have taken alternative routes to success.

If earning as much as you can is a goal of yours right now, that can be done. I had a 6 figure salary in my 30's without a degree. If academic success is your goal, there are many ways to study what you want alongside a career, do vocational studies, take a gap year and travel, do a swap, work in another country and learn a new language. If you want to do something enough, you will find a way.


Shelley Mason - Me!

'Exams aren't everything, they just help'

I worked in a shop at 15 to earn pocket money, became a staff trainer, worked in a bingo hall after being made redundant in a tech firm, so I could complete an HNC in computer studies I had started, before the internet was even really a thing and computers, phones and gadgets were all bigger than your head or as big as a room. When you are a teen, with hormones raging, your social life and exams may seem like they are the only things that are important to you but so much will change over your lifetime, that you can't even imagine. Exams help but are not the be-all and end-all. I did customer support roles, technical sales, graphic design, IT consultancy, including senior test management, quality assurance and software performance analysis roles, earning at one point over a 6 figure income by my early 30's. I am now a complementary therapist having retrained completely in my 40's to do something completely different and give back. In my 50's I now support students at a local college. Something as a teen I would never have believed I would be capable of or love so much. I love helping people get back on their feet again, feel relaxed, improve their sleep and make a real difference to how people feel and their quality of life. I'm a wife, a daughter, a mother, own my own home and own business. All this and more when my headmistress of my senior school told me at 16 years old, that she would not let me take the subjects I wished to study in her school because I would never pass them and I quote from her 'You will never amount to anything or survive in the real world. Get realistic!'. Times have changed since then and I now know that there are teachers who really care and never, squash your dreams like that because of school league-table result fears. I was very shy, introverted, could not spell (I still can't) I mirror wrote and was dyslexic, although I didn't know that was what it was at the time. Needless to say, after much hurt, tears and despair, as you can see, I did OK, ignoring that advice to get realistic! I studied the subjects I wished to at another school and although my grades were not high, I passed English and experienced studying to A level and learnt my greatest life lesson. That you can be whoever you want to be and do whatever you wish to do. There are different costs associated with your choices but those are your choices to make. So never let anyone else tell you what you can and can't achieve based on their own experience and limitations because your life is your own and not theirs. What they say to you, says more about them, than it does about you and your capabilities. Make your own rules, stay within the law but some rules and expectations of us by friends, family or society are not always fair or just and are meant to be broken or challenged. If Athletes believed they could not break records or exceed their personal best, it would never happen. Believe in yourself and you WILL surprise yourself and others, when it comes to what you can achieve.

I was devastated that I could not stay in the sixth-form college I wished to attend, lost my best friend because she thought I had deserted her. I felt like my whole world was ending but little did I know at the time, that that headmistress did me the biggest favour and I learnt the greatest life lesson, that taught me to always question and challenge those in authority, the experts and people who are meant to be the best in their field because no one, not even those you love and respect can be right 100% of the time. You are the one and only expert that counts when it comes to your own hopes, dreams and happiness. So I learnt to trust myself and my instincts more, followed my heart and respect but not be ruled by my fears. Not all thoughts in our heads are true. Knowing this has always served me well ever since. I'm a lifelong learner, so you never know, I may do a degree yet, as a mature student. Never say never. Needless to say, I did make new friends, I met my husband and had so many other adventures along the way. There is life after exams. You will be OK but do ask for help if you need it.

Some more familiar names you may have heard of

“There is lots more to be learned from failure than success, and if you have the will to succeed, not having a paper with A, B or C written on it isn't going to hold you back.”

Watch the BBC documentary about Jay Blades. A successful business entrepreneur, TV presenter and 'The Repair Shop' familiar celebrity, who was able to get through life right up until his 50's without being able to read due to his form of dyslexia.

Business phenomenon and The Apprentice star is also famous for leaving school at sixteen and still succeed beyond all expectations.

Here are some more examples of very famous people who didn't take the conventional academic path to success and still did really well.

Additional Support

The Young minds charity offers some simple but important stress support tips that may help you and give you a great place to start. They also have a parent's area. They cover the following topics:

  1. Dealing with exam stress

  2. The importance of self-care

  3. Keep it in perspective

  4. Revision tips

  5. Dealing with disappointing exam results

Childline (for under 19's) offers free confidential counselling chat and online message boards where you can safely share your experiences and a 24/7 helpline for emergency support call 0800 11 11

The Mix (for under 25's) offers eMail support, 121 webchat and Free short term counselling between 3pm-Midnight, 7 days a week. For emergency support call 0808 808 4994

Samaritans (all ages) whatever you're going through, you can contact the Samaritans for support. Open 24/7 call 116123

For longer term mental health support in the UK, there are local NHS, CAMHS services available. The MIND charity has a good explanation of what CAMHS do and the YoungMinds charity also has a useful guide but referral by your GP is usually required.

If you need reflexology support or would like to book on to a workshop, do get in touch. For more free resources sign up for my newsletter and receive your free gifts or join my free Facebook group.

Shelley Mason MAR

Reflexologist and NLP Practitioner

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