Exam Anxiety: Interview with Lisa Pfau

This week we will be interviewing Lisa Pfau, the founder and CEO of Pfau Academic Writing, about the stress caused by assignments and exams. We thought this topic would be helpful to our listeners who are about to enter the final exam season. Exam anxiety is a real and serious problem that can hinder students’ academic performance.

Lisa 300x200 Exam Anxiety: Interview with Lisa Pfau


As you may know, Lisa has over 20 years of experience supporting students through academic challenges. I first met Lisa three years ago as a first-year International student at the University of Toronto. Lisa has helped me with the transition from high school to university, giving me lots of great tips about how to deal with the pressures of university.


What are some symptoms of exam anxiety?

Before I start, I should preface this with a disclaimer: I’m not a psychologist. I am a writing coach and I am basing my responses on 20 years of experience dealing with students, as well as my own research and readings on the topics. We do provide some links to mental health resources at the end of this post though.


Physical symptoms of anxiety: sweating, shakiness, increased heart rate, dry mouth, nausea, loss of appetite, crying, shortness of breath and dizziness. In some cases, some folks may even get physically ill, experiencing vomiting and diarrhea. I threw up one before my first provincial exam in Grade 12 because I was so nervous. Exam anxiety can be debilitating.

Cognitive symptoms of anxiety: procrastination/avoidance, addictive behaviors, inability to focus, loss of memory, lack of concentration, negative self-talk, easily distracted, lots of thoughts bouncing around in your head. I can usually tell when a student is anxious because I have to ask them the same question repeatedly and I get a distracted response. Or, oftentimes they fail to do their work in-between sessions because they are so worried about failing the assignment that it is better to completely avoid it, than try and make a mistake.


How does exam anxiety impact performance?

For me, I used to blank out at the beginning of the exam. For the first few minutes after sitting in the exam room, I would not be able to recall anything. However, after taking a few deep breaths and ritualistically setting up my exam table, my memory would start to come back and I could write the exam. Developing awareness about this response to exam stress helped me not to get overwhelmed by it. 


Another major impact is procrastination. When we are scared about something, we tend to avoid it, and that can mean avoid even starting an assignment or studying for an exam because we are afraid to fail, in the end creating the outcome that we were scared of, and validating our original fears.


Anxiety also makes it hard to focus and plan ahead, so we may think we studied, but since we were anxious our thoughts are all over the place and we likely are not hitting on or absorbing the key concepts. This is usually what happens when someone appears to have logged a bunch of hours in the library, but can’t seem to get a good grade on their work or exams. They are not sitting down to make a plan, note key information, memorize it, review it, and reflect on their mistakes, so that they can improve in the future. This is because when you are anxious you cannot access the part of your brain that deals with long-term planning and long-term memory. Your body is focused on fighting off the threat, which doesn’t require you to recall theoretical concepts or historical dates. It just requires you to know how you use your legs and run like the wind…or, hid under your bedspread watching Netflix.


What are some practices or strategies to relieve stress?

Anxiety affects everyone differently, and so we all deal with it differently and some strategies that work for me, may not work for everyone, but here are a few that I like:

  • Deep breathing: 7/11 breathing – breath in for 7 seconds, hold your breath for 4 seconds and breath out for 11 seconds

  • Journaling – Writing things down really helps me to get clear on why I am feeling a certain way, so that I can make a plan to resolve those stressors. It also can help me to identify and combat negative thought patterns.

  • Exercise – I find that I collect a lot of stress in my body throughout the day. If I don’t get at least an hour of intense exercise (weights or cardio) each day, it will build up over a few days and I will eventually find it hard to focus and want to start avoiding my desk.

  • Healthy eating – Sugar in-take really impacts my mood, so I tried to avoid sugary treats as much as I love them. I try my best to eat more fruit or bake treats out of natural ingredients or increase the fiber content to balance out the sugar. This is definitely a tricky one for me though because I baked goods.

  • Making lists – making a to-do list and setting intentions for the day helps me to get back on track when my brain wanders off on a tangent. I also keep a blank page for random thoughts that I pop into my mind throughout the day that I need to deal with, but not at the moment. I can then add them to my list for another day.

  • Professional help: Finally, I’m a big believer in psychotherapy. I think we spend some much and time working on my physical appearance, why not invest in your mind and mental health as well. Good friends are wonderful, but a therapist provides you with insight you often cannot get from others in your life unless you happen to be best friends with a trained therapist.

Recommended Resources

Presence by Amy Cuddy

School Counsellors



Student Care





Thank you, Lisa, for sharing the excellent advice with us and our readers! 

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