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How to Overcome Test Anxiety
Reviewed by Rayelle Davis, M.S.Ed., NCC, LCPC
- Affecting close to 40% of students, test anxiety can negatively impact your exam performance.
- Implementing healthy techniques before an important exam can help reduce test anxiety.
- Learn to use breath and thought strategies to manage stress on test days.
I struggled with test anxiety in college. During one final exam, my nerves were so intense that I started shivering and felt nauseated. Wanting to avoid that problem for my next final, I didn't eat before the exam. As a result, I felt faint, stumbled out of the room, and headed straight for a vending machine.
Test anxiety affects nearly 40% of students, according to the American Test Anxieties Association. And MentalHelp.net says college students rank tests as their biggest source of stress — even above paying for school or finding a job after graduation. But what is test anxiety, and how can you overcome it?
Test anxiety affects nearly 40% of students, according to the American Test Anxieties Association.
We've all felt nervous before an exam. Test anxiety goes beyond just nerves, though, and can negatively impact your performance.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) reports that test anxiety causes physical symptoms like sweating, a pounding heart rate, and faintness. Stress about exams can even trigger a panic attack. Test anxiety also affects your ability to concentrate and focus, posing a major problem for students trying to take exams.
Several factors contribute to test anxiety. For many, a fear of failure drives the anxiety. Whether you had a negative experience on a previous exam or worry about failing a tough class, test anxiety can strike anyone. Learning strategies to manage test anxiety can help you prioritize your mental health and stay calm during midterms, finals, and other important assessments.
5 Strategies for Managing Test Anxiety in College
Test anxiety can hit days before an exam and affect your ability to effectively prepare for it. It can also manifest the night before a test or as soon as you walk into class. Here are five useful strategies for managing test-taking anxiety throughout the school year.
Develop Healthy Study Techniques
An all-night cram session the night before an exam can leave you feeling anxious and underprepared, as will strolling into class on exam day without having studied at all. By focusing on healthy study techniques, you can build better habits and feel more prepared for tests.
According to PsychCentral, how you approach a study session can make a big difference. Practicing positive self-talk and avoiding catastrophizing is key to reducing test anxiety. Instead of cram sessions, plan ahead and set aside time to study in the days leading up to your exam. Schedule in break times, and make sure you get plenty of fresh air and rest.
Get Enough Sleep
A good night's sleep can make a noticeable difference in test anxiety symptoms. Research shows that students who sleep less than six hours a night for two weeks see a significant drop in their performance — on the same level as staying awake for 48 hours straight. Plus, more sleep benefits your memory.
On top of that, sleep helps people manage their anxiety. Over half of adults with generalized anxiety disorder experience sleep problems, and insomnia can exacerbate anxiety. A focus on creating healthy sleep habits can mitigate general anxiety in addition to test-taking anxiety.
Target False, Unfounded Thoughts
More than 6 million Americans experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts. For college students, these might include unfounded thoughts like "I'll never be able to pass this exam" or "Everyone in my study group thinks I'm an idiot." These kinds of thoughts can quickly spiral into test anxiety.
More than 6 million Americans experience unwanted, intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts often hold little to no basis in reality, yet they can consume our thinking. ADAA recommends strategies like identifying these thoughts as intrusive and letting them pass through your mind without giving them attention.
Another option is to use a thought log in which you can record any intrusive thoughts that crop up before a test and then counter them with a healthier, alternative way of thinking about the exam.
In this log, the event would be the test, the thought would be the negative assumptions you make about your performance on the exam, the consequence would be the stress and anxiety you feel, and the alternate response would be something like "While I know the test will be hard, I'll try my best to study hard and prepare for it."
Prioritize Your Physical Health
We think of anxiety as a mental health issue, but tackling anxiety often entails a physical health component as well. One study from 2010 found that children who exercised for 20 minutes before a test scored better. Additional research shows that exercise diminishes anxiety. Even a 10-minute walk can burn off nerves and leave you feeling more confident and less worried.
One theory for the connection between exercise and anxiety posits that exercise helps our brains manage stress. So make time for fresh air and exercise, even during finals week.
Keep the Test in Perspective
A single test won't make or break your academic career. Even if a final exam or standardized test feels all-consuming, try to keep it in perspective. Test anxiety fuels negative thoughts, harmful comparisons to others, and feelings of helplessness.
Instead, practice positive self-talk. Remind yourself that the test is not a measure of your worth. These practices can help test-takers arrive on exam day feeling prepared and calm.
How to Reduce Test Anxiety During an Exam
Sometimes you do everything right before a test but your anxiety spirals once you walk into the classroom. Maybe you open your test booklet and see questions that weren't on your review sheet. Or maybe you start to second-guess yourself as the seconds tick by and everyone else's pencils are scribbling away without issue.
What are the steps to take for overcoming test anxiety as it's happening?
First, take a deep breath. Breathing techniques such as inhaling for a count of six and exhaling for a count of six can lower your heart rate and stop anxious thoughts in their tracks.
How to Deal With Test Anxiety on Exam Day
- Use calming breathing techniques
- Avoid distractions
- Practice positive self-talk
- Visualize handing in the exam
- Pace yourself — don't rush
Some people also benefit from a mantra or a phrase they repeat in their heads. Something as simple as "I can do this" or "I'm ready" can drive out negative thoughts and focus your mind.
During the test, limit distractions by choosing a seat near the front of the room. Avoid checking the clock every few minutes. Close your eyes and visualize turning in the completed exam. Think about what you'll do after the test ends. And when negative thoughts arise, acknowledge them and let them pass.
Don't rush or hurry through the exam; instead, spend a few minutes looking over every question and leave time at the end of the test to check your answers. Something as simple as slowing down can help instill a sense of calm. Even just closing your eyes and breathing for a few moments can bring back a sense of balance.
Next Steps for Managing Test Anxiety
Sometimes breathing techniques and mindfulness aren't enough to dispel text anxiety. If anxiety gets in the way of your academic performance or significantly impacts your mental health, you might consider visiting your campus counseling center.
College counselors specialize in helping students work through test-taking anxiety. You can also research test accommodations, including extra time or a quiet room in which to take your exam.
Most college students experience test anxiety at some point in their academic careers. By acknowledging the stress of exams, applying the above tips and strategies, and reaching out for mental health support if needed, you can overcome test anxiety and achieve success.
Rayelle Davis, M.S.Ed., NCC, LCPC
Rayelle Davis is a board-certified counselor and a licensed clinical professional counselor. As a nontraditional student, she earned her associate degree in psychology at Allegany College of Maryland before earning her bachelor's in psychology at the University of Maryland Global Campus and her master's in counseling education with a concentration in marriage, couples, and family therapy at Duquesne University. Davis has taught several undergraduate psychology courses and is currently a doctoral student and teaching assistant at Duquesne University.
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