Do you suffer from test anxiety? Does just the thought of taking a test make you feel queasy and lightheaded? Test anxiety can dramatically affect your exam performance and cause significant discomfort in the days leading up to the test and during the test itself. But with a few changes, your next test doesn’t have to be a negative experience.
Short-term solutions for an upcoming exam. If you’re looking into the barrel of an exam right now, there are several things you can do to improve your anxiety level. First, assess the remaining time before the exam and jot down a quick study plan, even if it’s only for 15 minutes during your lunch break over the next week. Studying can reduce test anxiety significantly. Next, decide how to handle anxiety when it happens during the test. The best plan is to accept the anxiety as normal (rather than fight against it), practice deep breathing, and go for a quick walk around the building before sitting down to take the test.
Long-term solutions for lasting relief. Getting through the next test is one thing, but when you want test anxiety to be less of a problem overall, you will need to make some lifestyle changes. Reducing the amount of caffeine in your diet, striving for well-balanced meals, and getting enough rest will all help you to better cope with exam stress. You may also want to adopt an exercise program -- several sessions of aerobic activity a week, like brisk walking or jogging, will help your anxiety level.
If you tend to procrastinate, you should also work on holding yourself accountable for “baby steps” by studying a little at a time, over a longer period of time, rather than saving all of your studying for the last day. Procrastination will make your anxiety levels skyrocket, and a long-term plan for test-anxiety relief must always include learning how to do things ahead of time.
If you have at least several days remaining before the exam date, you have a great opportunity to reduce test anxiety. Preparation is the single best way to keep test anxiety under control -- if you know that you’ve studied well for the exam, it’s much easier to squash those jittery feelings come test day. Here are some study tips designed especially for those of you who struggle with test anxiety:
Take a deep breath and look at the calendar. This is the most difficult step, because it forces you to confront the test date and count the days or weeks remaining. But this step is essential for your study plan. So go ahead, pull out that calendar and circle the test date in red marker. Let yourself feel the panic rising -- is your heart racing yet? Now push the anxiety aside and assess how much time you have before the test. Do you have days or weeks? Take heart, because every one of those days or weeks is a chance for you to prepare.
Make a study plan. When you know how much time you have before the exam, sit down with a pencil and paper and come up with a study plan that works for you. If you only have several days before the exam, plan to study at least several hours a day or more for each of the remaining days. If you have several weeks, plan for an hour a day or several hours a couple of times a week. Do not plan to stay up all night before the exam -- you will need your rest.
Use a study guide. Those of us with test anxiety often don’t know where to start, especially with exams that cover a wide amount of material. To keep from running around like a chicken with its head cut off, you should check out a study guide made specifically for your particular test. A study guide will provide practice questions and a sample test that could help you to pinpoint your weak areas and use your study time more effectively.
Then study! Now here’s the kicker -- once you’ve decided when and how to study, you must actually make yourself sit down with that guide during your scheduled study time. Don’t procrastinate, because this will undoubtedly increase your anxiety as the test date comes closer. If you have time before the test, you can dramatically reduce your anxiety by using some of that time for studying.
Focused Study Sessions
Getting a little nervous before a test is fairly normal -- but being so nervous that you feel sick, can’t sleep, or can’t concentrate is called test anxiety. Because test anxiety interferes with your ability to recall information and concentrate on exam questions, it can significantly impact your score.
One of the best ways to reduce or even eliminate test anxiety is by adequate preparation. Students who feel they have studied well for an exam often have less anxiety than those who feel they haven’t studied enough. But studying in itself might not prepare you best for the exam -- how you study can also make a big difference. Here are some tips for making your study sessions effective:
Talk a walk. Before you sit down to study, you might want to do some light aerobic activity like taking a short walk around the block, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Studies show that students who participate in light exercise before studying tend to retain information better, likely because of increased circulation and oxygen. Exercise is also a natural anti-anxiety measure and will help to calm your nerves before studying.
Use a study guide. The sheer amount of material on many common exams can be overwhelming. To narrow down your study efforts, check out a study guide made specifically for the test you will be taking. Many study guides also offer practice exams that will help you become accustomed to the exam format and give you an idea of which items you need to study the most.
Study in one-hour increments. Ideally you should begin studying for an important exam several weeks or months before the test date. Plan to study about an hour every day -- slow absorption of material is better retained than what you memorize in a last-minute cram session.
Review before bed. One of the most effective study secrets is to review what you studied before you go to bed each night. There is something about “sleeping on it” that helps your mind better grasp the material. However, this is not recommended if reviewing before bed makes you anxious and keeps you from sleeping.
Get enough rest. A well-rested mind retains information much better than a fatigued one. Sleep also helps you fight anxiety and cope with stress. During times of high stress, you should always aim for at least seven or eight hours of sleep a night. Being under stress is like being sick -- both require more energy from your body and drain your immunity; adequate sleep, on the other hand, helps to replenish your body.
Like most types of anxiety, test anxiety affects the mental, psychological, and physical aspects of life. Some of the physical symptoms include fatigue, insomnia, digestive problems, muscle tension, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, dry mouth, and shallow breathing. These symptoms can cause much discomfort for test takers.
If you suffer from test anxiety, one of the best things you can do for yourself is learn how to train your body into relaxation. Here’s how:
Take at least 10 minutes every day for deep breathing. In a regular day, we often breathe quickly with short, shallow breaths that barely fill our lungs with oxygen. While this may be the bare minimum for life, don’t settle for anything less than full lungs! Learn how to breathe deeply, from the diaphragm. When you inhale deeply, your stomach should rise slightly. If your chest rises instead of your stomach, your breathing is too shallow. Inhale as you slowly count to five, and exhale for the same amount of time. As you exhale, imagine all the stress melting into the floor. Do this several times, working up to at least 10 minutes a day.
Release muscle tension in your hands. Test anxiety increases muscle tension that reduces your concentration. Try this simple exercise: Make a tight fist first with one hand, and then the other. Squeeze each fist as tightly as possible -- put all your nervous energy into each hand as it makes a fist. Then, release and stretch out your fingers. Picture all the tension dripping off your fingers as your hands relax.
Practice whole-body muscle relaxation combined with deep breathing. Try this exercise: Lie flat on your back in bed or on a couch. Starting with your feet, tense your muscles tightly while you breathe in (to the count of five). Breathe in deeply from your diaphragm, so that your stomach rises instead of your chest. Then release the muscle tension as you exhale, and focus on the relaxed sensation. Repeat with every major muscle group, moving upward and ending with your face. Imagine all your tension melting into the floor as you release each muscle group when you exhale.