Test anxiety can be detrimental to our grades, measure of success in school, and our stress levels. If you notice the symptoms early on, however, you can stop test anxiety in its tracks and get back to your normal self.
It’s test day. You’ve been up all night cramming, flipping through notes, and worrying about the outcome. When you finally sit down in front of that paper you start to panic. Heart racing, sweaty palms, stomach ache – and the worst part? You can’t remember a thing.
As if you needed another reason to stress about school, right?
If this sounds all too familiar to you, you may be struggling with test anxiety, a type of performance anxiety that affects students of all ages.
What are the symptoms of test anxiety?
A certain level of test anxiety is normal and natural to have. It has grown into a bigger issue when it begins to affect your everyday life. This can include school performance, relationships, or your ability to remember key information. In this case, it needs to be addressed soon. The symptoms of test anxiety can be physical, emotional, or behavioral.
- Having an increased heart rate or blood pressure
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation) or shortness of breath
- Clammy hands
- Feeling weak or tired
- Nausea or vomiting
- Blurry vision
- Brain fog
- Dry mouth
- Feelings of stress, fear, helplessness, and disappointment
- Obsessive negative thoughts about past poor performances, consequences of failure, feeling inadequate, helpless
- Mind going blank
- Racing, unfocused thoughts
- Thinking about a problem over and over again (rumination)
- Intensely or obsessively avoiding feared objects or places
- Feelings of impending panic, fear, doom, or danger
- Extreme worry
- Inability to focus
- Inability to stay calm and still
- Shaking leg
- Hair twisting
- Knuckle cracking
- Distracted vision or desire to look at surroundings
Causes and Risk Factors
Perfectionism and Fear of Failure – Perfectionists need to be or appear perfect, but also believe that perfection can be achieved in some way. Although it may seem like a positive trait, it is often linked to anxiety and poor mental health.
Often these types of students are under high pressure from others or themselves. In experiencing test anxiety, they exist in an extremely self-critical mindset and associate their worth with the grade on the test. These students can also obsess over self-image, consequences of bad grades, or judgment from others.
Procrastination and Time Management – Lack of preparation can be a driving cause of test anxiety, and it’s one of the most preventable. Waiting until the last minute to study, not completing assignments on time, prioritizing other school activities, or having poor class attendance can be problem factors.
Brain Chemistry and Medical Conditions – A history of mental health disorders like depression or suicide can increase your risk of having test anxiety. Similarly, some heart, lung, and thyroid conditions can cause symptoms similar to anxiety disorders or make them worse. Learning disabilities like Dyslexia or ADHD may cause test anxiety as well. Rule out any health problems with your doctor first.
Environmental Factors and Past Trauma – PTSD, substance abuse, low self-esteem, or problems in the home can lead to test anxiety. Check in with yourself and identify if you’re struggling with any issues that could use help from talking to a counselor or therapist. Healing our emotional wounds can have unintended positive consequences, like better school performance and grades.
How can I tackle test anxiety?
Well before the test
Be prepared. Begin studying a few weeks before your test date so you have enough time to prepare. Take detailed notes and experiment with different study techniques. If flashcards aren’t working for you, switch it up to a memorization game. Ask your friends or classmates to form a study group with you.
Take care of your health. Pay attention to how you treat your body and mind. Stay active, eat healthily, and get quality sleep. Engage in fun activities that allow you to be creative, move physically, or relieve stress.
Talk to the teacher. Tell your teacher or professor that you’ve been struggling on test days. Ask if they can give you insight on what areas to focus on. If you are having problems understanding a section, ask them for clarification and guidance. They may be able to give you old exams or questions to study from, and often teachers are waiting for students to ask for help.
Right before the test
Get a good night’s sleep. Head to bed early to ensure you get the 7 – 8 hours of sleep you need. Considering you’ll probably be staying up worrying for a bit – or scrolling your phone – aim for 30 minutes before you would normally turn in.
Eat a healthy breakfast. Keep it light and keep it healthy. The last thing you want during the test is the nervous feeling of an empty stomach or low energy. Stay hydrated and eat something to give you a boost, like fruit or granola. Avoid too much caffeine!
Practice calming techniques. Meditation, journaling, drawing, or breathing techniques can help you calm your nerves the morning of. Play your favorite song while you get ready in the morning, or create a positive mantra you can repeat to yourself.
Gather materials. Make sure all your papers, writing materials, and books are in order. If you need to purchase anything before the test, like pencils or a scantron, make sure you’ve done it days before.
Arrive early. Getting to the test location or class early will give you time to settle down. You’ll have time to chat with classmates, use the restroom, or grab an extra snack without worrying.
During the test
Calm your thoughts and body. When you notice the jitters, attempt to calm yourself. Still your movements and breath slowly.
Sit comfortably. Stretch and relax your muscles before finding a seat. Breath deeply and notice your posture. Sitting up, relaxing, and being mindful of your posture can affect your state of mind. Slouching can make you feel tired and weak while sitting up can increase your confidence.
Replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Catch your negative thoughts and rephrase them. Learn to live in a glass half full mindset. Instead of panicking that you don’t know one answer, pat yourself on the back for knowing the last three. Stay focused on the current task, and avoid worrying about what you cannot change at the moment.
After the test
Congratulate yourself. You’ve done great! Regardless of what grade you received, it is a success to prepare and finish the test. Relax and don’t focus on the outcome. It is out of your hands. Move on to the next assignment.
Check in with yourself. Without seeing the grade, how do you think you did? Ask yourself how you feel mentally and physically. Maybe some of your new calming techniques helped or studying a week earlier made the difference. Find a way to measure your success that isn’t based on the test grade.
Review the test. After you receive the test back, review any questions you have answered incorrectly. Learn how to improve upon your study techniques and understand exactly why those questions were missed. Recognize that incorrect answers are only used as data to improve your knowledge and not as a measure of self-worth.
Test anxiety can be a huge pain, especially when you’ve been preparing and losing sleep. Like any habit, tackling test anxiety will take practice and time. Keep tabs on your stress management, time management, and study techniques to tackle this problem. The skills used here will be useful in many life situations beyond school testing.
Don’t compare your results to others. Compete with the previous version of yourself.