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Reviewed by Jill Johnson, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Have you ever felt an elevated anxiety level before a test? Maybe your normal confidence was replaced with a severe fear of failure, and the calm walk you typically have into your classroom was replaced by deep breathing and a rapid heartbeat.
These are all classic signs of test anxiety, or academic anxiety — a feeling of unease and worry that often pops up as you prepare for an exam.
Test anxiety is a common issue that can cause both physical symptoms and the classic mental anxiety symptoms with which most of us are familiar.
When it’s severe, and particularly when it’s combined with the symptoms of an existing anxiety disorder, test-related anxiety may even cause issues such as panic attacks.
The good news is that test anxiety is something you can often overcome with a combination of study skills, test-taking strategies, time management techniques and exercises to help you get control over your feelings of excessive anxiety.
Below, we’ve covered what test anxiety is, as well as why it’s so common to develop anxiety in relation to tests, exams and assignments.
We’ve also shared 13 tips and techniques that you can use to reduce your level of anxiety and go into tests with the confidence you need to showcase your true abilities.
Test anxiety is exactly what it sounds like — anxiety that starts to develop in the weeks, days or hours before an important test or exam.
It’s normal to feel slightly nervous before a test, especially if it can have a significant impact on your grades, access to higher education or career. However, test anxiety can involve a severe, troublesome feeling of worry that could potentially interfere with your test performance.
That’s right — this type of anxiety doesn’t just make you feel uncomfortable — it may even affect your grades.
In a meta-analysis published in the Review of Educational Research, experts found that people with test analysis were more likely to display poor academic performance. They also found that test anxiety was linked with other forms of anxiety in students.
Test anxiety isn’t a specific anxiety disorder, meaning it isn’t something you’ll be diagnosed with by a psychiatrist. Instead, it’s a form of situational anxiety that might appear in your life before a major exam, public performance or other test of your skills, abilities and knowledge.
Everyone can experience some degree of test anxiety. However, if you have an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), you may notice that your pre-exam worry is severe enough that it affects both your ability to prepare for the test and your general well-being.
This is because the pressure of a test may exacerbate your existing anxiety symptoms, such as finding it difficult to concentrate or struggling to maintain regular sleep patterns.
Because test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety, or situational anxiety, rather than a clear mental health issue, there are no specific diagnostic criteria to determine if you’re affected.
Instead, test anxiety typically involves experiencing the usual mental and physical symptoms of anxiety in the weeks, days or hours before a test or exam.
If you’re prone to test anxiety, you might notice some of the following symptoms:
Feelings of worry, restlessness or being “on edge” before a test
Difficulty concentrating, studying or focusing on your academic tasks
Being irritable, annoyed and finding it difficult to fall or stay asleep
Physical pains and aches, such as headaches and muscle aches
Signs of panic, such as a fast heartbeat or shortness of breath
A sudden lack of confidence in your knowledge, skills or abilities
Fear that you might fail the test, or of general impending doom
Test anxiety can turn what should be a routine test into a stressful situation. However, the good news is that by implementing the right techniques ahead of time, it’s often possible to deal with test anxiety and walk into your exam feeling confident.
If you’re prone to severe anxiety before exams, try the 13 anxiety reduction tips and techniques below to make your next test, exam or assessment a less stressful experience.
Test anxiety can affect anyone, even if you have no history of anxiety disorders or other forms of mental illness. However, you might find it particularly hard to deal with the stress of an important exam if you have an existing anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety or panic disorder.
If you think you have an anxiety disorder, it’s best to seek treatment before stressful events such as exams begin to intrude on your life.
You can get help for anxiety by talking to your primary care provider about your symptoms, or by using our online psychiatry service. If appropriate, your provider might prescribe medication and suggest techniques that you can use to successfully manage your anxiety.
It sounds obvious, but sometimes the best way to deal with test-related anxiety is to set aside a little extra time to prepare for your upcoming exam.
Exams aren’t just about knowledge — they’re also about test-taking skills. Try to spend as much time as you can learning the material you think the exam will cover, completing practice exams, reviewing your notes and generally getting ready for your upcoming test.
While being prepared isn’t a 100% guarantee against poor performance in an exam, each extra hour you spend preparing can greatly increase your likelihood of a successful result.
If you find it hard to focus on studying before an exam, try establishing a routine to make setting aside time to prepare easier.
Sometimes, the simplest study strategy is the most effective. Try to schedule one to two hours per day in the weeks leading up to your test (or more, if it’s an important exam) so that you can gain as much knowledge as possible.
By making studying a consistent daily habit, you’ll go into the test room armed with both better knowledge of the exam material and the confidence you need to limit your feelings of anxiety.
In the days leading up to an exam, it can be tempting to cram and spend every waking moment studying, memorizing and reviewing your notes.
This is a great way to burn yourself out, leaving you feeling exhausted and lacking in motivation by the time your exam comes around.
If you feel tired, bored or just in need of a break, make sure to give yourself the rest, peace and self-care you need. Our list of self-care tips for women shares simple tactics that you can use to unwind and de-stress at the end of a busy evening spent studying.
Great test scores happen one step at a time, meaning any amount of progress — even if it’s just a new set of facts memorized or a theory understood — is meaningful.
When you make progress during test preparation, don’t feel afraid to reward yourself. This could mean taking a break to rest and unwind, enjoying your favorite meal, or anything else that keeps you motivated towards making further progress.
Sometimes, an easy way to reduce the severity of test anxiety is to ask your teacher, professor or lecturer for advice.
This could mean asking for their opinion about what you should prioritize while studying, asking if there are test preparation classes available that you can take part in, or just reaching out for a quick talk to let them know that you’re feeling a little nervous.
It’s far from unlikely that you’re the only student with anxiety about an upcoming test, and many teachers will be happy to help you to keep calm and focused on preparing effectively.
Sleep has a huge impact on your cognitive function, meaning a poor night’s sleep could result in a test score that’s below what you’re capable of.
Sleep deprivation — an issue that’s caused by a consistent lack of sleep — is also closely linked to an increase in anxiety levels. In other words, getting less sleep might not just stop you from having the brainpower you need for your test — it might also worsen your anxiety.
Try to get at least seven to eight hours of quality sleep each night, and not just the night before your exam. Start a week ahead of time and set a specific bedtime, letting you “switch off” at the end of the day and retain the information you’ve learned.
More than anything else, avoid the temptation to pull an all-nighter before your exam. Not only could the lack of sleep worsen your anxiety — you’ll also forget details and struggle with simple things like staying focused.
Skipping a meal can reduce your blood glucose levels, leaving you feeling shaky, jittery, hungry and tired. These symptoms may worsen test anxiety and prevent you from being able to give it your all during your exam.
Before your exam, try to eat a nutritious meal that gives your body the fuel it needs to function at its best. Choose foods that will keep you full throughout your test, not high-sugar foods that give a quick burst of energy followed by fatigue.
If you’ve done well on past exams and assignments but still feel anxious about the next one, try to use your past successes to enhance your confidence and remind yourself that exam success is very much possible.
Remember, you’ve done this before. Not only have you passed exams previously — you made it through a full semester of classes to prepare for this. All that you’ve got to do is repeat the steps you’ve already followed to make it through this exam and on to your next step.
Once you’re in the exam room and getting started, it’s far from uncommon to experience “blank page” anxiety — feelings of worry and concern about how to get started.
Blank page anxiety is similar to writer’s block, and one key to getting over it is to take action by doing literally anything. This could mean writing your first sentence, preparing an outline for an essay, or starting halfway by answering a few questions further into the test.
Often, you’ll find that the simple act of doing something can create the momentum you need to make it through even the most challenging exam.
When you run into a question that’s difficult to answer, it’s easy to look around the exam room, see other people writing and assume their minds are full of facts, figures and other information that you don’t have.
These assumptions are rarely accurate, and they can potentially make your test anxiety worse by causing you to feel as if you’re falling behind.
Instead of paying attention to other people, focus solely on yourself. If you find a question you can’t answer, set it aside, then come back to it later after moving through the rest of the test at your own pace.
There’s an old saying that “perfection is the enemy of progress.” If your test is timed, keeping a regular pace is an important part of making steady progress through the questions and finishing on time.
As such, it’s okay to accept that your answers don’t always need to be perfect. Instead of letting the clock tick away as you focus on a perfect answer for one question, pay attention to the time and make sure you pace yourself so that you can provide as many answers as possible.
Finally, if you start to panic during your exam, don’t be afraid to spend a minute or two calming yourself down using relaxation techniques.
Our guide to relaxation techniques for anxiety lists simple yet effective approaches that you can use to calm down, stay focused and make progress when you’re feeling overwhelmed, whether you’re in the workplace, the exam room or elsewhere.
Test anxiety is an unfortunate reality of life. It’s common and normal to feel worried before a big exam, especially when your grade could have a significant impact on your educational success or career opportunities.
The good news is that test anxiety is treatable. By applying the techniques above, you can walk into the exam room feeling more confident not only in your knowledge, but in your ability to take control of your worries when they emerge.
If you’re worried about anxiety that extends outside the exam room, you might want to consider talking to a mental health professional about your symptoms.
If appropriate, you may be prescribed medication to help you treat your anxiety symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Interested in learning more about dealing with anxiety? Our guide to anxiety disorders explains the basics of anxiety, from specific types of anxiety and how they may affect you to risk factors that may play a role in your anxiety symptoms.
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