If you’re a student (or have ever been one), you’ve felt nervous before a big exam. A mild case of the nerves can actually be useful, giving you an adrenaline boost that will help you perform at your best. However, if your pre-test stress becomes so extreme that it impedes your performance, you are probably experiencing test anxiety. Read on to learn more about what test anxiety is, what causes it, and how you can overcome it.
What is Test Anxiety?
Test anxiety is a complex of emotions such as worry, dread, and fear—along with physical fight-or-flight symptoms—that some people experience before and during a test. It’s a form of performance anxiety—when the pressure to succeed becomes so overwhelming that people are unable to concentrate and operate at 100%. Some degree of nervousness around test-taking is normal, but when symptoms cause panic attacks, hinder learning, or impair performance, it’s important to find ways to modulate this response.
What Causes Test Anxiety?
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, test anxiety is rooted in the following causes:
- Fear of failure: Also called atychiphobia, fear of failure can negatively affect our performance. Students who tie their feeling of self-worth to the results of a test are more likely to experience this fear.
- Lack of preparation: Knowing you did not study thoroughly enough for a test can add to your feelings of anxiety and dread.
- Poor testing history: If you have performed poorly on other exams or have bad memories of testing situations, you may find yourself in a cycle of negative thoughts that can influence your results on future exams.
Symptoms of Test Anxiety
Symptoms range from mild to severe and include:
- Emotional symptoms: Feelings of fear, anger, disappointment, helplessness, and dread. More severe symptoms include depression and low self-esteem.
- Physical symptoms: Headaches, diarrhea, feelings of nausea, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, and light-headedness. In more severe cases, test anxiety can lead to a panic attack.
- Behavioral/cognitive symptoms: Negative self-talk, comparing yourself to others, fidgeting, and difficulty concentrating. In some cases, anxiety can become so bad that students drop out of school.
Tips for Overcoming Test Anxiety
So, how can you get over test anxiety? Here are some tips to help:
- Be prepared: Lack of preparation can significantly worsen test anxiety. Make sure you are fully prepared next time you take a test. This includes thoroughly studying, getting a good night’s sleep, and arriving to class early.
- Modulate your breathing: Anxiety causes shortness of breath and a racing heart. In order to modulate these, practice regulating your breathing. Try breathing in deeply through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. This will slow your breathing and help to control your heart rate.
- Maintain positive thinking: Negative thinking and catastrophizing can lead to more severe symptoms such as depression. Set reasonable expectations for yourself and remember that your self-worth should not be tied to the results of a test.
- Laugh more: Laughter is a natural medicine that improves your mood and combats stress. Try watching YouTube videos or listening to a funny podcast the next time you’re feeling stressed.
- Stay healthy: Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important for your physical and mental well-being. Remember to always get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and practice self-care.
- Chew gum: Chewing gum during a test can help keep your mind focused on the task at hand and away from negative thoughts.
- Try meditation and yoga: Meditation is an excellent way to train your mind so that you can handle difficult situations more calmly. It helps you learn to focus your attention and drop negative thoughts as they come into your mind. Yoga is a kind of meditation that syncs breathing with body movements, developing focus on somatic sensations and reducing stress.
- Listen to music: Music has a profound power to alter your mood. Before a test, try listening to music to calm your nerves. A slow tempo can relax your muscles and quiet your thoughts, while dancing to an uptempo song could help you release tension.
- Hang out with pets: Research suggests that spending time with pets can decrease stress and anxiety in humans. If you don’t have a pet, consider fostering a pet or pet sitting.
- Talk to a counselor: Your personal therapist, or a counselor from your school’s health center, could help you better understand your test anxiety and could offer tools for transforming it. Many schools offer resources dedicated to helping students overcome test anxiety.
If you experience test anxiety, you are not alone. Try the tips above and reach out to your university’s counseling center for additional support.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America: ADAA.org
Lawrence Robinson and Jeanne Segal, “The Mood-Boosting Power of Pets,” HelpGuide, October 2019: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/mental-health/mood-boosting-power-of-dogs.htm