Exam result anxiety is something that hits every single August, with anxious youngsters all across the country experiencing similar fears.
This is a really challenging time in life for anyone; the first time that your next move is no longer determined completely for you, but by you. You’re making potentially life-defining decisions, moving on from secondary school and towards independent adulthood. When what comes next depends on your results, it must seem as if your whole future is in the balance.
Will you get into your first choice university or make it onto that college course? Will you be able to take that gap year you promised yourself and see the world? Is your career choice still an option? Might you have to re-sit some of your exams? It’s no wonder that stress and anxiety are common emotions in the days and weeks coming up to exam results.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of being gripped by panic or fear. Fear is normal in a stressful situation. Think of it as an alarm system that goes off to alert you when something’s amiss; waking you up to the fact that you need to act and focusing your mind and body so that you’re able to. There’s a lion! Run!
Being anxious about exam results is only human. But it’s not pleasant. And it can be debilitating if it carries on for too long or begins to affect other aspects of your life. The good news is: you don’t have to suffer with anxiety. However you feel, whatever you’re most worried about, you can overcome all your fears, using a well-established psychotherapy approach called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
What are you afraid of?
The first thing to consider is what it is that you’re actually scared of. It probably boils down to ‘failure’. Whether that’s failing to get the grades you need or are hoping for – or failing your exams altogether. But it helps to expand on that: what would “failure” mean for you?
Are you thinking that not getting the grades would be the worst possible thing that could ever happen? Are you worrying about how you would cope? Are you scared about how your parents will react and how you’ll face them? Do you think you might have to start all over again from scratch? All that extra studying and re-sits, plus you’ll fall behind everyone else your age?
It might be that you need certain grades to get into the university you desperately want to go to. Perhaps you’ve been told by your parents or teachers that it’s ‘the only one’ if you want to succeed in a particular area. You might be thinking that if you fail it proves what you’ve always thought of yourself: that you’re useless or stupid.
You may be facing all kinds of different fears in the run up to getting your exam results. And you can deal with all of them with the help of CBT. A proven approach, used by psychotherapists, CBT is based on the thinking that it’s our beliefs that shape our emotional experience.
Your AIME app can guide you through CBT techniques, helping you manage your exam results anxiety. This innovative app offers free advice, on all aspects of your emotional wellbeing, straight to your mobile phone. All advice and tools are based on proven science and personalised to you. Find out more about AIME.
How Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) works
CBT helps you understand how your emotions work and gives you the tools to take “emotional responsibility” in your life. By emotional responsibility, we mean understanding that you can’t always control what happens to you, but you can always choose how you respond to it. Take the Covid-19 pandemic as an example. The virus itself, and the measures taken to protect people from it, are events that are out of your control. Lockdown and social distancing has meant not being able to spend time with your friends, which can’t be easy. One choice could be to sulk in your room. Another choice to enjoy more quality time with your family instead. Which would make you happier?
That emotional responsibility is the route to mental wellbeing is not a new idea; it’s a belief that’s been around for centuries. But, in our modern lives, we tend to have a much more reactive mindset. We emphasise the external causes of our emotions, such as how other people ‘make us feel’ or what happens to us. This cause-and-effect approach may seem logical, but people rarely react the same way to the same cause. Imagine if half the students in your school failed their A-Levels. How would they all feel? It depends on the student, of course. One might think “well, I didn’t work hard enough” and shrug it off; another might feel furious at the “unfair marking”; another student might become depressed; another one might feel relieved they don’t have to go to university to please their parents. How you react to a challenging situation is not determined by the situation itself; it’s up to you.
A scientific approach
When it comes to discussing how we think and feel, it’s hard to see where science comes in. But CBT is very much a proven scientific approach. As with all science, ‘proven’ means using evidence to show that a hypothesis is true. If there’s not enough evidence for a theory, it needs to be discounted. This evidence method is a tried and tested approach that’s ideal for addressing your fears too, and is basically how CBT works. Let’s try it with a few common anxieties around exam results.
Assessing your exam result fears
Having to retake my exams would be the worst thing ever.
No one wants to re-sit exams. But is it really the worst thing? Surely you can’t think of something that might be more catastrophic? It’s helpful to think longer term too. Five years from now, will this still be an issue for you? In the grand scheme of your life, it’s unlikely that retaking an exam or two will make a difference to your success or happiness. However big a deal it seems now, you know you will get through it and move on.
My parents will be so angry and I can’t handle that.
Why do you think they’ll react with anger? Is that the most likely response to their child being disappointed by their exam results? Is it possible your parents might be supportive, upset, sad, ambivalent, or something else instead? You can’t know for sure how they’ll feel about this completely new situation. And even if they are all-out furious with you, you can deal with it. It won’t be easy, but the moment will pass and – whatever you believe – your parent’s anger can’t kill you. Again, thinking forward, are they still going to be mad at you in five years’ time?
Not getting into my first choice university will ruin my life.
How do you know for sure that your first choice university is the best place for you? It could be the worst option. A key thing that CBT teaches is: you can’t see into the future. You may be happy and successful at ‘the best’ uni or thoroughly miserable and drop out in your first year. If you don’t get in, you’ll never know anyway. It’s possible you’ll have a much better time somewhere else and even go on to be more successful. You could discover a hobby that leads to a career you never thought of, or make a friend for life that you wouldn’t have met at your first choice uni. Who knows where it could lead?
Getting poor grades will just prove how useless I am
This is an example of using one event to generalise about yourself: I didn’t do well at this, so I can’t do well at anything. Which clearly can’t be true. At your age, it’s understandable that you might believe getting high grades is everything, as your whole life until now has been focused on doing well at school, and getting into the ‘right’ university. But is it really the be-all and end-all? Do exam grades define a person? Would you judge someone purely on their A-Level or GCSE results? In CBT, judging yourself in this sweeping way is called “self-damning”.
What you can do – 4 CBT tools that will help you today
1. Take a step back
Anxiety will lead you to think in a particular way. Typically, when you’re anxious you’ll overestimate the probability of your worst fears being realised, underestimate your ability to cope, and even dream up bigger, scarier dangers. It’s worth taking a step back to check if you’ve been doing any of those things, so you can be more objective about how and why you’re feeling anxious.
2. Assess the evidence
Take time to examine your beliefs about your grades and your future. Assess the evidence to see if your fears are real. Looking at the evidence helps you put everything into perspective.
3. Ditch the rigid thinking
In any stressful situation, your rigid beliefs kick in and that’s what causes emotional conflict. When you’re certain of what must or must not happen, and how your life ‘should’ be, it’s difficult not to think it will be catastrophic to fail your exams (because that just can’t happen!). You’ve already set yourself up for anxiety. But things in life are rarely so ‘binary’, with success or disaster the only two options available. Stop and ask yourself: if it doesn’t go your way, will it really be as awful as you think? Is it possible that it might be ok or even turn out better?
4. Look for the opportunity in the challenge
There are so many examples of people who’ve come through challenging situations all the better for it. If you end up with disappointing exam results, it could be the catalyst for something new, bigger and better for you. If you’re forced to change your plans, take some time to consider the benefits. Maybe that university you’d never considered is in a city with amazing music venues. Perhaps retaking an exam gives you more time to consider your options. It could be that the bust up with your parents is a chance to say what you really want to do with your life.
And remember that…
…most of the things you worry about will never happen.
…you’ll deal with it if they do (you’re a lot more resilient that you think).
…you can’t predict the future.
…life events you think will be disastrous might actually take you in a new, brilliant, unexpected direction.
…and great exam results aren’t the only way to a happy, successful, and rewarding life.
Whatever happens, relax and enjoy the time you have now and everything you have to look forward to. You can always retake your exams; the one thing you don’t get a second chance at is being young!
For more information about CBT, emotional wellbeing, and how the AIME app can help you navigate life’s ups and downs…