If you regularly become excessively nervous before and during an important exam, you may have test anxiety. Test anxiety brings symptoms that often interfere with test performance and cause significant discomfort. These symptoms include increased heart rate, digestive problems (like nausea, diarrhea, cramping, heartburn, etc.), jittery feelings, sweating, shaking, and shallow breathing.
There are many ways you can reduce test anxiety before your next exam. Making a study plan, getting enough rest, and finding healthy ways to cope with stress can all be helpful in reducing test anxiety. But to find long-term relief for test anxiety, you need to deal with the source of the anxiety itself.
Test anxiety is a type of fear. Test anxiety affects many people of all ages and intelligence, and its symptoms are rooted in your biological “fight or flight” response. For whatever reason, your mind likely perceives an upcoming exam as a threat and then initiates a cascade of hormones that prepare the body for quick action in the face of this threat. When you think about an important test, what are you afraid of? The obvious answer -- being afraid of failing or performing badly -- is often just the surface-level fear. Why does your subconscious mind perceive the test as a threat worthy of your fear?
Test anxiety is often rooted in early childhood experiences. Fear of performing badly on an exam can go back far into your childhood. Did one of your parents or a teacher send certain messages to you about tests, as if your very worth as a person depended on your score? Finding the root of the anxiety can help you to deconstruct the lies and truths in that experience. You may need to seek out professional counseling to sort through these hidden messages.
Anxiety can distort your view of reality. Fear often causes us to see things differently from reality. For example, it may feel like your whole life depends on the results of that big test coming up. But regardless of how well you do on the exam, the truth is that you are a valuable person with much to contribute simply because you are alive. To keep everything in perspective, you may want to consider volunteer work with a local charity group or community organization. Working to help others may remind you that the human experience has numerous highs and lows, and that this next test is only one small thing in a much bigger picture.
It probably will not surprise anyone that test anxiety has been identified as a debilitating psychological syndrome by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Before using test anxiety as an excuse, however, you should know that very high standards apply before an applicant can be accommodated under the law. In order to be accommodated, the anxiety experienced by an individual must be clinically debilitating and of such magnitude that it limits “one or more of the major life activities” and is concomitant with another listed psychological disorder. Should this definition apply to an applicant, he or she might be granted accommodation. This could include taking the test in a separate room or without the customary time constraints.
While many test takers feel they need to be “accommodated,” most do not. Test anxiety is, for most people, unpleasant but controllable. Some kind of physical or emotional anxiety is common to most test takers. Some people live in dread of a moment when their brains “go blank.” Others experience gastrointestinal problems, headaches, or profuse sweating.
Whatever the physical or psychological manifestation, the test taker should begin to condition themselves early on by preparing thoroughly, participating in practice exams and courses, and performing physical conditioning exercises.
Time management, good study habits, and attention to organization are practical activities that alleviate the anxieties of test day. Stretching and breathing exercises do not require a great deal of exertion and can be performed anywhere, even during the test in most cases. Yoga practitioners may develop the art of calming themselves down by focusing on relaxation techniques. Even posture and clothing can play a part. Sitting properly will free the diaphragm and allow for easier breathing. Loose, comfortable clothing suitable to the interior climate will also aid in relaxation.
Keep in mind that there are many people who actually enjoy challenging themselves through testing. After all, isn’t that why many people participate in sports or other forms of competition? You might think it impossible to enjoy challenging yourself through computer or paper testing, but the competitive spirit thrives in everyone. Just think of an area where you have competed successfully, remember the feelings of confidence you experienced as a result, and do your utmost to channel that experience into testing practice.
1-Minute Guide to Symptoms
Test anxiety can impact your ability to concentrate and perform well on exams. If you only have a minute, this short article covers the symptoms of test anxiety:
Faster heart rate and “jittery” feeling. These symptoms are part of the initial biological response when you become anxious about a test. They may help you think faster but not necessarily better, and may make it difficult to concentrate.
Fast, shallow breathing. Test anxiety may cause you, to start taking short, shallow breaths that don’t completely fill your lungs with air. (You may not even realize it.) Over time this can reduce your ability to concentrate and will increase your anxiety. Try to take several deep breaths periodically, and make a point of inhaling and exhaling as long as possible.
Dry mouth and sweaty hands. The adrenaline that causes you to feel jittery before a test will also dry out your mouth and cause you to sweat. Take sips from a water bottle throughout the test to moisten your mouth, and keep some napkins or a small towel with you to dry off your hands.
Tummy troubles. If you have test anxiety, you may also have nausea, stomach cramps, or diarrhea. These symptoms can be very aggravating in a test situation. The best way to control them is to eat light, nutritious meals and stay away from fatty or heavy foods.
No More Test Anxiety!
Lack of organization often leads to test anxiety. As an example, let’s say that in two months you will take an important entrance exam that covers course material from the past four years. At first, you would barely know where to begin -- it can be overwhelming to think about so much material. And without an organized study plan, this overwhelmed feeling will probably intensify as the test date grows closer.
The good news is that you can sit down right now and map out a study plan that will dramatically reduce your test anxiety. Here’s how to get started:
Find or download a study guide. You can purchase or borrow study guides for many common tests, from college entrance exams to professional certification exams. An exam study guide often provides a detailed exam outline, sample questions, and a practice exam -- all designed to help you study more efficiently for what will be on the exam.
Pinpoint your weak areas. Once you find a study guide, take some time to review the test outline, and highlight anything that might not be familiar to you. You should also work through at least one practice exam to get an idea of your weak areas. Then, when you sit down to study, focus most of your time on the things that you don’t understand as well.
Use a calendar and/or a timer. One of the best ways to reduce anxiety is to control what you can about the test, and one of the biggest areas you can control is how much time you spend studying. Use your calendar to decide when and for how long you will study each day until the exam. If getting started is a problem for you, set a timer for 15 minutes and make yourself study until the timer goes off.
Avoid distractions. Once you’ve decided what you need to study and how to do it, you are ready to decide where to study. Try to avoid situations where you will be easily distracted -- such as around your children or in front of the TV when your favorite show is on. Create a quiet, calm environment where you can study for the allotted time without interruptions. If you need to leave the house or wake up earlier than your children and/or spouse, then plan to do so. These changes can help you feel more relaxed and in control of your testing experience.
Tips for Taking the Test
People who have test anxiety often experience heightened symptoms the day before the exam. While it’s important to study for a couple of hours, cramming material into your head all day and night before the exam will only increase your anxiety and decrease your concentration. If you are becoming more anxious by the hour, try these stress-reducing ideas:
Make time for exercise. This isn’t the time to meet with a personal trainer for that boot-camp-style workout, but about 30 minutes of aerobic activity can ease your stress level and help you to function better. If you aren’t in shape and have not been exercising regularly, just go for a walk around the block or do something else that gets you moving.
Don’t do anything overly tiring. This should go without saying, but don’t wear yourself out the day before your exam. Save trips to the amusement park and home-remodeling projects for another day.
Review your test-anxiety emergency plan. If you panic during tests, try to think about these steps ahead of time:
- 1) accept the anxiety as normal (rather than fighting against it)
- 2) practice deep breathing (inhale deeply to the count of five, then exhale slowly)
- 3) make a fist and squeeze tight, then relax your fist and imagine your whole body relaxing.
You might want to practice these steps a few times the day before the exam, so that you know exactly what to do.
Have a relaxing evening routine. Brew a mug of herbal tea if you like, or settle into bed with a good book (nothing too suspenseful, though). Take a long bath, or play quietly with your children and/or pets. The point is to do something enjoyable and relaxing before going to sleep.
Hit the sack early. Finally, make a list of things you need for the morning and put it by your bed. Set your alarm. Then, when you’re tucked into bed early, try this exercise: Starting with your feet, tense your muscles tightly while you breathe in (to the count of five), 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. Think happy thoughts and you’ll be in dreamland before you know it.
More Strategies to Reduce Test
Do you become anxious before an important test? Symptoms of test anxiety include sweating, shallow breathing, upset stomach, feeling jittery, insomnia, and inability to concentrate. While studying ahead of time is a great way to feel more in control of the test material, there are also certain tricks to help you with anxiety during the test itself:
For multiple-choice questions, eliminate and decide. Most multiple-choice questions have four possible answers. You can often eliminate two answers immediately. That leaves two possible answers. Can you decide between the two? If so, then mark the correct answer and move on. If not, make an educated guess -- you have a 50% chance of getting it right.
For essay questions, brainstorm and outline before writing. Don’t let yourself freeze up while staring at that blank essay form. Use your scratch paper to get those ideas moving by brainstorming whatever comes to mind related to the essay question. Then quickly organize those thoughts into a brief outline, and you’re ready to start writing your essay.
Keep it moving. Because most tests are timed, it’s important to pace yourself during a test and not spend too long on any one item. For example, if you have a multiple-choice section followed by an essay question, you should leave enough time for the essay. To avoid getting stuck on a multiple-choice question, use the “eliminate-and-decide” strategy discussed above. If your test allows you to skip questions, you may need to do so if you get stuck on a particular question.
Breathe and stretch. Test anxiety results from a heightened “fight or flight” biological response to a threatening event. The good news is that this response can help you to think fast. The bad news is that the jittery feelings and other symptoms can interfere with your concentration. There are two good ways to counteract test anxiety during a test: 1) breathe deeply, causing your stomach -- not your chest -- to rise as you inhale, and 2) relieve muscle tension by periodically stretching, or by making a fist and releasing it.
Make Test Anxiety Work for You
If you’re like most people, you just want those feelings of test anxiety to disappear. You might try to talk yourself out of it, but usually this has the reverse effect because then the anxiety becomes your main focus, and every symptom is an alarm that you have failed to control it. At this point the test anxiety will continue to grow and define your test experience. Don’t let this happen to you.
Next time you feel panicky before an exam, try something radical -- instead of wishing it away, harness the power of anxiety. Here’s how it works:
Understand the reaction. Don’t beat yourself up for being nervous. Test anxiety is a normal reaction to a perceived “threat” and results in a cascade of biological symptoms such as increased heart rate and faster breathing. The good news is that the neurochemicals involved in this reaction will help you think more quickly. The bad news is that the biological symptoms are also meant for physical action, resulting in a restlessness that makes it difficult to sit still at a desk.
Use the anxiety like a tool. Trying to ignore or talk yourself out of the “fight or flight” response will only make it worse. When test anxiety happens, welcome it as a sign that your body is ready to focus. Decide to work with the anxiety, not against it. Even this small change in your thinking can make a huge difference in your ability to manage the symptoms.
Get rid of nervous physical energy. In addition to embracing the general concept of test anxiety, you’ll need to train the physical aspects of test anxiety to make them work in your favor. First, practice deep breathing to counteract the shallow breathing that happens when you’re anxious. This will increase the oxygen flow to your brain and help you relax. Then, come up with a physical release for muscular tension that would work for you before the test, such as walking around the testing-center building for five minutes or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Taking deep breaths during this short physical activity will work wonders for your concentration.
When Studying Doesn’t Help
Most people who suffer from test anxiety find relief when they feel they have studied enough for the exam, because procrastination and feeling ill prepared contribute significantly to stress. But if studying well doesn’t seem to help your test anxiety, you may need extra help.
Test anxiety has uncomfortable symptoms that often dramatically interfere with test performance. These symptoms include increased heart rate, digestive symptoms (like nausea, diarrhea, cramping, heartburn, etc.), jittery feelings, sweating, shaking, and shallow breathing. Many of these symptoms result from a heightened “fight or flight” biological response to the test as a perceived threat.
If test anxiety is a significant problem for you, it may be helpful to consider the psychological or environmental origins in your own life. What has happened in your life to cause you to view tests as a threat? When do you first remember experiencing test anxiety? What happened before that first experience that may have affected you? What messages about tests did you receive from your childhood teachers and/or parents? How might these messages have affected your view of yourself, and what about your perceptions may be false or inaccurate and thus possible for you to overcome?
There may be psychological “lies” attached to your anxiety -- lies about how test performance reflects your self-worth and value (rather than merely your mastery of the topic at hand, or ability to reason through the topic). Test anxiety is often rooted in perfectionism, low self-esteem, lack of confidence, negative self-talk, and previous bad experiences. If test anxiety persists, you may want to seek out a trusted counselor, minister, or advisor to help you wade through some of the underlying issues involved. You may also want to keep a journal or a log of the thoughts that run through your mind when you feel anxious.
With some introspection and guidance, you may be able to subdue the “inner demon” of test anxiety. But it won’t happen by itself -- this type of personal growth takes commitment and courage, often with the support of others.
Keeping It in Perspective
Sometimes those of us who have test anxiety put more emphasis on tests than necessary. In the weeks before a big test, it may seem like time practically stops at the test date: You can’t focus on anything besides the date, and it feels like a huge burden as it comes closer, as if everything about your life depends on your performance. While it’s true that a big test may determine certain things about your life, dwelling on this worsens anxiety and may even feed into your self-esteem or confidence issues.
So to keep big tests in perspective, let’s look at what tests can and can’t do:
Tests may determine your career path for a time. There are definitely certain tests that affect the overall course of your life. But what if the “worst” happens and you don’t do well? Will the world fall apart? The result may not be exactly what you had hoped for, but if that particular career path is what you were meant to do with your life, then one test score may set you back for a while but will not ultimately keep you from pursuing that dream.
Tests do not reflect your self-worth. You are a valuable person regardless of your performance on this next test. You have the right to be treasured and loved, even if you fail the test miserably! To pull yourself out of testing tunnel vision, volunteer with a local charity group or join up with a community organization. Working to help others may remind you that the human experience is varied and beautiful, and you can be part of it whether you do well on the test or not.
Tests assess what you know on a particular day. From the time we’re children in elementary school, tests are often given far more weight than justified. Most achievement tests take place on one day, during a four-hour time span. Anyone who has ever been “off” one day and then “on” the next (as we all have experienced at some time) should know that one day’s test results may not be the best indicator of someone’s knowledge. That’s why most tests have retakes.
Tests cannot sum up everything about who you are. If you do well on one particular test, does that mean that you are a great person who can do well on everything? Of course not! But people with test anxiety often think that a test reflects how smart and competent they are in all areas of life, and that if they don’t do well on the test then it must mean they are unintelligent and incompetent. But this simply isn’t true -- you are much more than your performance on one test.