How to Pass Exams Without Anxiety

'Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.' - Robert Collier

It's that time again. Say goodbye to your social life and goodbye to sleep and hello to the long hours in the library. Exams are looming, but don't start stressing just yet. There are a number of ways to help you pass exams without anxiety, including breathing techniques and relaxation methods.


An emergency quick relaxation technique

This exercise is to counteract panic and the build up of tension. It is adapted from Jane Madder’s useful book Stress and Relaxation.

1. Say sharply to yourself STOP! (aloud if the situation permits).

2. Breathe in and hold your breath for a moment before slowly exhaling. As you do so relax your shoulders and hands.

3. Pause for a moment, then as you breathe in slowly again, relax your forehead and jaw.

4. Stay quiet for a few moments then go on with what you were doing, moving slowly and smoothly.

5. If you have to talk, speak a little more slowly and with your voice a little lower than usual.

This STOP! Relaxation can usually be done without anybody noticing and you will find that, in spite of your feelings, the tension will lessen.

The complete breath

The essential feature of this exercise is that everything is completed SLOWLY.

1. Stand upright with your arms by your side. Exhale.

2. Breathe in through your nose. As you do so, inhale, filling as fully as possible your stomach/abdomen area first and thereafter your chest.

3. At the same time, bring your arms above your head and rise on to your toes. Hold this for a moment.

4. Breathe out through your chest. As you do so, lower your arms to your sides and your feet to the floor again.

You can repeat this between 3 and 10 times. If you wish you can count to 8 as you inhale and do the same as you exhale. Alternatively, you can start to raise yourself onto the balls of your feet when your arms reach the horizontal halfway point of their journey to above your head, lowering yourself onto your heels slowly from the halfway point of their journey down.

Breathing slowly and deeply

The same sequence illustrated in the The complete breath can be used at any time, without the accompanying stretching movements. It is useful to avoid the build up of tension, or to reduce it once it has occurred. The sequence is as follows:

1. Breathe in slowly through your nose to the count of 8. As you inhale the air, imagine you are filling your stomach/abdomen area first and thereafter your chest.

2. Hold this breathe in for as long as it remains comfortable to do so.

3. Expel the air slowly through your nose to the count of 8, expelling the air from your abdomen upwards through your chest.

4. Refrain from taking another intake of breath until it becomes uncomfortable and repeat the sequence 1 to 4, again.

Three times is usually enough to reduce the level of tension and to refresh you. You may extend this if you need to do so. It is a useful technique for the exam room.

Alternate nostril breathing

This is an effective relaxant that can help with tension and head congestion.

Inhale through the right nostril, closing the left nostril with the thumb of your left hand. Count slowly to 4 as you inhale.

Close both nostrils with your left thumb and forefinger and hold your breath to the slow count of 4.

Exhale through your left nostril to the slow count of 4, whilst closing your right nostril with your forefinger (or first two fingers whichever you find easier).

Release both nostrils, remaining without breath for another count of 4.

Repeat, breathing in through the left nostril.

Once you have established an even 4-4-4-4 routine and can complete the thumb and forefinger movements easily, close your eyes when doing this exercise.

You can try variations on this 4-4-4-4 routine. Try in for 6, count to 3; out for 6, count to 3; in for 6, etc. 8/4/8/4 combinations, once you’re used to the others, will slow and deepen your breathing even more. You can practise this exercise for 5 minutes or so at a time – even three or four sequences will be beneficial.

Breathing at three levels

There are three levels of breathing which you can come to detect well if you practise yoga techniques.

Level one

When you are anxious your breathing is often shallow. If you locate where you are breathing it is at the top of the chest. You will probably find you are breathing quite quickly. If asked to speak your voice is likely to tremble and be quite quiet with this level of breathing.

Level two

This is a deeper breathing which comes to and from the chest. You are likely to feel less anxious, have a stronger voice when asked to speak in a public situation and breathe more slowly than in level one. Much of your breathing in everyday life is likely to be in level two (or fluctuating between level one and level two).

Level three

When you take full, deep, intake of breathe you move into level three breathing. What happens is that your diaphragm moves down to create a vacuum in the lung cavity and pushes out the abdomen. You can see and feel your stomach filling up and emptying. You could imagine yourself filling up a balloon on the in-breath. If you gently lay your hand on your stomach you will feel it rise and fall. The higher you go the better as it means that you are drawing in air to fill the lungs. Do not overstrain though.

Breathe through the nose whenever possible and breathe out through the nose as well.

Your out-breath should be more emphasised than the in-breath and take a little longer. If you sigh slightly as you release the breath, you will find it will help to release tension.

Similarly, if you tense and then relax your shoulders by allowing them to drop with a sigh, you will be helping to let go of your tension.

You can also hold your breath at the end of the exhalation, for 2 to 5 seconds, to enable yourself to be still before a full inhalation begins.

As with other exercises in breathing you need only repeat it fives times in order to feel the benefit of this deep breathing exercise, which you can do in a sitting position. Over time it will generate a feeling of well being.

(How to Pass Exams Without Anxiety – Fourth Edition by David Acres, Published by How To Books Ltd)

Exercise to reduce Panic

1. Be aware of your breathing. Usually during a panic attack, it is rapid and high up in the chest.


Sit up or stand up straight, move your shoulders back, put your hand on your stomach and make a conscious effort to move your breathing down to your tummy. Take some deep breaths and breathe from the area where you have placed your hand.

2. Be aware of the position of your head. Usually during a panic attack people are looking down.


Move your head up. Move your eyes up to look at least straight ahead.    

Move your eyes even higher and look around if this helps you feel better.

3. Be very aware of how different this makes you feel.

4. Maintain this exercise for at least five minutes. You are not wasting your time; you are taking practical steps which will make you feel calmer and more able to cope in your present situation.

5. You can do this exercise anytime, anywhere, quite discreetly. You can repeat it as often as you wish.

 6. Acknowledge and expand on any positive thoughts, feelings or pictures that come to mind. Use the reserve and resources that are there within you.

7. The secret is you can learn the technique but.... it needs positive effort from within you. 

The WASP Technique         

Stop the Wasp                   

If you start panicking in the exam, or during your revision, practise.

“Stop the Wasp”


STOP - the self defeating thoughts that are buzzing around like wasps 

Tell yourself instead that you are going to survive this experience, come what may. Go through the following “W-A-S-P” squashing   procedure, which you’ll need to practise during the milder forms of anxiety in the revision period.

Familiarity with procedure, through practice and mental rehearsal is essential.

WAIT - switch off and unwind for a few moments. Focus on breathing and then relax with eyes closed. This will help you return to the task afterwards with a calmer, clearer mind and more constructive perspective.

ABSORB - taking in the relaxation, flood your mind with constructive self – talk (ideally from a repertoire of previously prepared and practised phrases); then slowly open your eyes and calmly bring yourself to face the exam situation.

SLOWLY PROCEEDget going with the paper, as best you can, calmly, a step at a time.


When focusing on your breathing, take a long slow deep breath, and allow the air to flow out slowly and smoothly. Sit back comfortably, and imagine any tension flowing out through your hands and feet. Try any relaxation technique that works for you.

Repeat “Stop the wasp” if necessary – you may have rushed back too soon the first time. Stay longer “waiting and “absorbing”. If the panic continues or escalates, tell the invigilator without delay.

10 Minutes of Relaxation

Try to find somewhere free from distractions. The deepest relaxation comes when you are lying down, but you can manage quite successfully sitting in a comfortable chair.

If you are lying down, lie on your back with arms and legs a little away from your sides. (You may prefer to lie with your hands resting on top of your abdomen if relaxation seems strange at first).

If you are in a chair, sit with your feet on the ground, and rest your arms along the arm of the chair or on your lap.

Have a good stretch, and then settle down. Snuggle down until you are comfortable. Breathe in (not a very deep breath) and then breathe out slowly. Do this again and as you do so, close your eyes gently and feel the tension beginning to drain away. Then go back to your ordinary breathing calm and even.

Focus your thoughts on each part of your body in turn, to the muscles and joints.

Relax your toes and ankles.

Relax your legs so that your thighs roll outwards.

Feel your back touching the floor or the back of the chair. Let the floor or chair support you so that your back muscles relax.

Relax your hands so that your fingers are curved, floppy and quite still.

Relax your shoulders, let them drop.

Let your head rest easily against the support so that the neck muscles relax.

Relax your face, let any tension come off it so that your lips are soft, your feet are not tightly together, your forehead is smooth.

Stay like this for a little while and capture the sense of the whole body relaxing.

You may begin to feel warm and your limbs heavy. Then there may be a sensation of floating. Don’t be surprised by these feelings, just enjoy them as part of relaxing.

When muscles are relaxed they are really resting, and it relieves mental tension because you cannot be anxious and relaxed at the same time.

Have at least six more minutes of relaxing like this.

If you are practising before you sleep you will discover that you drop off more easily and your sleep is more peaceful.  But if you have to finish after your six minutes, open your eyes and look around, have a good stretch and then sit up SLOWLY.

Updated 16/04/2014 PL