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How to Manage Test Anxiety

May 8, 2021

What is test anxiety?

All students have worried about doing well on a test at some point in their academic careers. In fact, it’s perfectly normal — and sometimes even helpful — to feel nervous about an upcoming exam. Studies have shown that moderate levels of stress and anxiety can actually improve your performance on a test. If your fear and worry about a test are so intense that they impede your ability to perform well on a test, however, you may be experiencing test anxiety, which is a serious but common condition and can be managed in a variety of ways.

What are the symptoms of test anxiety?

Before you can manage test anxiety, it’s important to learn to identify how test anxiety can manifest physically, emotionally, and cognitively.

Physical Symptoms

Cognitive Symptoms

Emotional Symptoms

Nausea

Trouble recalling information

Low self-esteem

Racing heart

Trouble thinking clearly

Frustration

Sweaty palms

Racing thoughts

Irritability

Dry mouth

Rumination

Feeling helpless

Shaking

Negative self-talk

Feeling disappointed

Panic attacks

Self-comparison to others

Depressive symptom

Of course, you may have test anxiety and not experience all of these symptoms. If you experience some of these symptoms and find that they are hindering your ability to do well on a test, it may be a good idea to take a closer look at possible causes of your test anxiety so that you can come up with a plan to manage it.

What are the causes of test anxiety?

It can be difficult to determine the exact cause of test anxiety, as, in many cases, it is due to a combination of factors. These factors can be classified into three broad categories: perfectionist tendencies, stress due to your testing history, and underlying anxiety. Perfectionist tendencies are often closely related to fearing failure and to connecting your self-worth and identity to your performance on an exam. Your fears may be realistic, such as fearing that you are not fully prepared for a test, or they may be unfounded, such as thinking that your family, peers, and teachers will think you’re not smart if you don’t do well on an exam. No matter whether your fears are realistic or not, it’s important to be able to identify these feelings as possible causes of your test anxiety so that you can directly address them.

Not all cases of test anxiety can be traced to perfectionist tendencies. Some people, for example, may experience stress due to their testing history. If past testing experiences have provoked anxiety or led to poor results, you may feel particularly anxious about future testing experiences. As is the case with perfectionist tendencies, being able to identify a stressful testing history is one of the first steps to devising an effective test anxiety management plan.

A third possible cause of test anxiety is having a history of anxiety that is exacerbated during testing experiences. Anxiety, while quite common, is a serious medical condition. If you believe your test anxiety is due in part to underlying anxiety, we recommend seeking the expertise of a medical professional in addition to following some of the tips on how to manage test anxiety that we discuss below.

How do I manage test anxiety?

There are a variety of physical, cognitive, behavioral, and emotional strategies grounded in science that you can draw on in order to abate some of the symptoms of test anxiety. In terms of physical strategies, one of the most effective ways to combat test anxiety is regular exercise. Recent research has shown that exercise can help reduce anxiety for multiple reasons. One explanation is that engaging in exercise helps divert your attention away from whatever you may be anxious about. Exercise also works to combat anxiety by decreasing muscle tension, increasing the availability of anti-anxiety neurochemicals such as serotonin, and activating frontal regions of the brain that control the amygdala, the system that reacts to real or imagined threats to our survival.

Moreover, regular exercise can help you develop a consistent sleep schedule, which is another physical strategy you can use to manage test anxiety. Additional physical strategies we would recommend include tips you may already be familiar with, such as reducing caffeine intake and eating nutritious foods. We would also recommend taking short breaks while studying in order to give your mind a chance to rest and focus.

Beyond physical strategies, there are also cognitive, behavioral, and emotional strategies you can use to manage test anxiety. One of the most powerful cognitive strategies is challenging negative self talk, which involves putting your upcoming test into perspective and reminding yourself of your past successes. Even if you’re preparing for a test as important as the SAT or the ACT, keep in mind that the score you receive on any particular test date will not dictate your future success, as you can almost always retake the test. While this does not mean that you should not take these exams seriously, it does mean that, in the grand scheme of your high school career and college applications, these exams make up just one component and should not be intertwined with your identity and self-worth.

Other cognitive, behavioral, and emotional strategies include giving yourself enough time to adequately prepare for an exam; asking for support from teachers, family, and peers; and visualizing yourself completing the exam successfully. While preparing for an exam, you should remember to take your studying seriously but think of the test as a game with the objective of collecting as many points as possible. Keep in mind that you do not need to collect every point to do well, so you should remember not to spend too much time worrying about particularly difficult questions. Thinking of an exam as a game can alleviate some of the pressure you may put on yourself to achieve a perfect score.

Remember that if you feel like you may be experiencing test anxiety, you are not alone. Taking tests can be an extremely stressful and nerve-racking experience, but there are always routes you can take to reduce the severity of your test anxiety symptoms. We are confident that if you follow our strategies and seek out additional support when needed, you’ll be able to learn how to manage your test anxiety and feel more confident about your testing experiences in high school and beyond.

Command Education does not provide medical advice, but we recognize how difficult academic challenges can be. Anxiety can be a serious medical condition, and we encourage you to speak to your doctor to learn more about it.