Strategies for test anxiety

It’s perfectly normal for anyone to feel anxious before a test.

If you studied for a test beforehand, your worries may not be as intense. It’s a different story if you were cramming the previous night.

Some people, however, are simply prone to higher levels of test anxiety.

What causes test anxiety?

There are several reasons for such fears to develop, some of which are realistic and others are unfounded.

For instance, you may be anxious because you are not ready for the test. You either did not study or may be some perfectionistic tendencies are causing you to believe you are not ready.

Your anxiety. may also stem from the fact that if you fail an exam, there may be severe consequences.

It is also possible that you fear being judged harshly by your family, professors, and/or classmates. In some cases, you may doubt your capacity to pass the exam. Such thoughts are likely to further compound your original test anxiety.

What are the symptoms of test anxiety?

Physical manifestations

  • Upset stomach
  • Racing heart
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sweaty palms
  • Nausea
  • Shaking
  • Fainting
  • Dry mouth

In milder cases of test anxiety, your symptoms may be as simple as butterflies in the stomach. But in severe cases, you may end up physically ill.

Emotional manifestations

  • Anger.
  • Depression.
  • Distress
  • Feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy
  • Low self-esteem

Feeling helpless to change a situation can make it more challenging to perform well in tests. In some cases, students berate or belittle themselves, which worsens test anxiety.

Behavioral and cognitive manifestations

  • Avoidance of test situations as much as possible
  • Fidgeting
  • Forgetfulness
  • Negative self-talk
  • Self-doubt

When these symptoms persist, students may become more avoidant (e.g. missing classes or dropping out of the program) or some students may turn to substance use as a way to manage anxiety.

How to better manage test anxiety?

There are several methods to use before and during an exam.

Before you take an exam

  • Try to put things in perspective so you see the test for what it is—an important requirement but your future doesn’t depend on it.
  • Think about the exams you’ve passed before and other past successes. If you managed in the past, you can do so again.
  • Don’t let a test define you. Your score is not the one and only basis to gauge your ability and intelligence.
  • Visualize yourself completing the tests despite your anxiety. We tend to attract what we think and envision.
  • Reduce your caffeine intake several days before an exam to reduce its impact on your anxiety level.
  • Get a good night’s sleep so you can think clearly and focus.

On the day of the exam

  • Don’t be late, so your anxiety levels won’t shoot through the roof.
  • If you have the time, walk around the building, meditate, or find other ways to manage your nervous energy.
  • Pick a spot with little to no distractions. If allowed, bring earplugs.
  • Remind yourself that you don’t know everything that may appear on the test and that there could be a few curveballs along the way.
  • Keep negative thoughts at bay. Whenever you start thinking negatively, remind yourself that is the fear and try to ground yourself using a strategy that fits for you (e.g. paying attention to your breathing or listening to the sounds in the room). Then, try to engage in positive self-talk by recalling your past successes.

Anxiety management strategies

Here is one strategy:

  • Close your eyes and breathe in and out slowly. Count to 5 in between the inhalation and exhalation.
  • Continue slow breathing until your body begins to relax.
  • Open your eyes and engage in positive self‑talk

Keep in mind that every individual is unique and not all strategies work effectively for everyone. So try out various anxiety management strategies to see which fits you the best.

Now that you know what to do when test anxiety strikes, you’ll likely manage your test anxiety in a helpful way from here on out.

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