In study leave, I tended to arrange all the books neatly and to make my planning even "better" each time. I did everything to avoid having to start studying.


Did you know this?

Fear of failure can occur in different situations such as when doing an exam, giving a presentation, playing sport or making a telephone call. First year students and females on average suffer more from fear of failure. Females often admit it quicker than males. A performance-oriented environment and perfectionism contribute to fear of failure. Fear of failure is an important factor in 'underachievement' or dropping out of studies.

How stress and anxiety can actually be helpful

Everyone feels stressed and anxious once in a while. Both stress and anxiety are basic emotions that can be useful to help us react to difficult and threatening situations quickly and effectively.

When you come across a threat, your in-built stress response system is activated and multiple physical reactions enable you to shift into a state of alertness and respond appropriately.

This can also be useful when you’re studying. If, for example, you're anxious about taking an exam or giving a presentation, this fear can evoke a stress reaction in your body that stimulates you to do your very best and perform better. In other words, it makes you more alert and temporarily boosts your ability to cope.

When anxiety takes over

Sometimes, however, stress and anxiety shoot past their target. When your anxiety is no longer in proportion to its cause and this persists for a longer period of time (i.e. several months), it becomes problematic.

If the fear of failure gets the upper hand, doing what you need to do creates an unrealistic fear. In addition to physical reactions such as clamminess, heart palpitations and headaches, negative thoughts such as "I can't do it anyway", "I'll screw up again anyway" or "I'm not good enough" also develop.


These thoughts often affect your self-image. You almost always speak negatively about yourself. You believe that if you do something well, you owe it to pure chance and not to your own abilities. The realistic view of your own abilities and strengths falls away.

Fear of failure also affects your behaviour. Not everyone reacts in the same way.

  • Active fear of failure: You try to avoid failure and fear by trying extremely hard. You spend all your time on perfect preparation and do not allow yourself any relaxation. This is at the expense of other important activities and good self-care. Over time your ability to cope diminishes and you become exhausted.
  • Passive fear of failure: Here the opposite is true. Out of fear of confrontation with an experience of failure, you avoid doing what you need to do. You procrastinate and spend a lot of time on secondary activities such as tidying your desk. In this way, you feel less anxious in the short term, but you increase the chance of failure experiences in the future.

Students with active fear of failure often perform better than those with passive fear of failure.

During exams, I isolate myself from the other students in the halls. I don't even eat in the communal kitchen any more, for fear of losing too much valuable study time.


Talk about it


Do you often get blocked during study leave and put off getting started? Do you have a lot of anxiety and even moments of panic? Know that you are not alone. Talk to somebody you trust and feel good around, preferably someone you know, like a good friend, your parents or your siblings.

If you struggle to talk to someone in your immediate surroundings, try to approach a person who is familiar with similar experiences, such as a GP or a student advisor at your college or university. A conversation with a study advisor and/or psychologist can be useful to support you in dealing with your fear of failure.

Would you prefer to share your story anonymously? You can always contact Awel (102 or or Tele-Onthaal (106 or For questions about suicide, reach out to the Suicide Hotline (1813 or

Keep your anxiety under control

The online self-help programme Stress and Anxiety consists of 6 sessions that help you control your stress and anxiety. You learn how to turn negative thoughts into helping thoughts.

Seek help

Do you feel that you cannot manage on your own? College and university often organise courses on fear of failure. Besides extensive group activities, an individual conversation with a study advisor and/or psychologist can also support you in dealing with your fear of failure.

Often counselling consists of gaining insight into your fear of failure and regulating your emotions through relaxation techniques. You also focus on turning negative thoughts around and work actively on your self-confidence. The better you understand the links in your fear pattern, the better you are able to get out of the negative spiral. Failure is a learning process: just because it did not work this time does not mean that it will always go wrong.

Feared and conquered: students & expert share their experiences

Anxiety, stress and depression. Sooner or later, many students will have to deal with these issues to some extent. In this episode, our host addresses this topic together with her guests, Birthe and professor Patrick Luyten (KU Leuven & University College London), who is specialized in mood disorders.

Worried about a friend?

Have you noticed your friend is often panicky or puts off loads of things before or during exams? Then you might not know what to say. The best thing to do is talk about it. Try not to judge, but just tell them that you are worried about them, and why.

Keen to learn, read or hear more about this topic?


Ted Talks

Self help


  • offers a Toolkit for Fear of Failure with more information about causes, approaches and how to prevent fear of failure. (Dutch)