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Crush Test Anxiety (Part 1)

Updated: Aug 26, 2023

Beat Stress and Excel in School with These Test-Taking Tips



It’s normal to get “butterflies” in your stomach when prepping for a big test. But sometimes, exam stress can get out of control. So, instead of studying for the test, you procrastinate. Or maybe you did study, but you’re so nervous on test day, you feel like you’re going to throw up, and you can’t remember anything you reviewed. If this sounds familiar, you might be suffering from test anxiety.


In this first part of a two-part blog, I’ll cover an overview of test anxiety, its causes and symptoms, and share some quick tips that will help you make it through test day. In Part 2, I’ll share some longer-term strategies to help you manage and reduce test anxiety overall and improve your academic performance.


Before we go any further, just a quick reminder: I’m not a doctor, and the info I'm sharing here is meant for general knowledge and shouldn't be taken as medical advice. It's not a replacement for getting guidance from your doctor or another qualified healthcare provider when you have questions about a medical condition. So, remember to reach out to them for official medical advice!


What Is Test Anxiety?

Anxiety is a survival tool nature created long before humans arrived on the scene. It’s what tells squirrels they need to store up those nuts someplace safe, so they won’t starve when winter comes. It’s what prompts birds to build nests, so they have someplace safe to lay their eggs. And it’s supposed to help you remember to get in some solid studying before that exam. Mild anxiety helps us prepare for important challenges in the future.


Test anxiety is when you feel so stressed and worried during a test that it makes you do worse. It’s a type of performance anxiety – like if an actor got so nervous that they forgot their lines, or a quarterback became so flustered that they felt dizzy. No one can do their best when they feel like that.



Why You Freak Out During Tests: Symptoms and Causes of Test Anxiety


Symptoms

Physically, anxiety causes your brain to make the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. A bit of these hormones can help you feel focused and spring into action, but a lot of these hormones, especially if they’ve built up over time, can wreak havoc on your body. The symptoms range from mild to debilitating:

  • Headache

  • Nausea

  • Shaking

  • Sweating (not just from the heat)

  • Shortness of breath

  • Heart beating quickly

  • Lightheadedness

  • Throwing up

  • Passing out

  • Panic attack


Psychologically, you might feel any of the following leading up to, right before, or during a big test if you’re experiencing test anxiety:

  • Distress

  • Fear

  • Helplessness

  • Disappointment


And instead of rocking it, you might find yourself doing any of the following things:

  • Blanking on the answers

  • Zoning out

  • Ruminating on your perceived shortcomings

  • Comparing yourself negatively to others

  • Procrastinating

  • Freezing up


Causes

Like all types of anxiety, test anxiety usually builds through a cycle of stress and negative thought patterns. You feel the stress, and it causes you to have negative thoughts and worries… which in turn causes you more stress and leads to more negative thinking, and more stress, and before you know it, your breathing is shallow, your stomach feels tight, and your hands are shaking.


Sometimes negative thought patterns show up as obsessing over the “what ifs”.

  • “What if I fail?”

  • “What if I studied the wrong material?”

  • “What if I throw up?”


Other times, negative thought patterns show up as self-criticism or comparing yourself to others.

  • “I suck at tests.”

  • “If I don’t do well on this test, I’m never going to get into a good college.”

  • “No one else freaks out about tests like this. What is wrong with me?”


Let’s break down some of the common sources of these negative thought patterns and the stress that comes with them.


High Pressure

When you’re getting ready for a test that could impact your grade, or maybe even your college profile, it can create more anxiety over the outcome.


Fear of Failure

If you feel like your grade in a class or score on a test is a direct reflection of your value as a person, you’re more likely to pressure yourself to do well. You’re also more likely to develop perfectionist habits.



Perfectionism

Perfectionism often goes hand-in-hand with a fear of failure. Perfectionists (hi there!) often have incredibly high expectations for ourselves (and others), even when it’s not necessary for a given situation. You set the bar super high, and then you get upset or disappointed if it’s not met.


Feeling Unprepared

Sometimes you forget that a test is coming up, or you know it’s coming up, but other things seem more important. Then you either don’t have any time to study or don’t have much, so of course you’re freaking out about the test. You might even stay up late trying to cram, and then a lack of sleep can compound your anxiety.


Disappointing Test Record

If you’ve earned a low score on another test, especially the same type of test or subject, it’s easy to be even more concerned about whether you can get a better score this time.



Test-Day Tips for Coping with Test Anxiety


There are many techniques that you can use on test day or during study sessions to help calm your anxiety as it pops up. Some of these are universal…literally everyone should be doing these to set themselves up for success. Some of them are going to be more or less useful based on your personal stress triggers.


Sleep for Success

Most of what you try to cram into your head the night before a test will be deleted while you sleep, anyway. So just do your brain a favor, and get the recommended 9-10 hours of sleep that your brain needs in order to function properly. Yes, teens need this much sleep to do your best, but if you have to settle for 7-9 hours, so be it.


Optimize Your Morning

If you are feeling rushed before the test, your brain will flood with those stress hormones. Wake up with enough time to get ready, gather your materials, eat a sit-down breakfast, and have a short walk well before you need to leave the house. You need to wake up a minimum of 2 hours before the test begins to give your brain enough time to turn on all the way.


Choose healthy foods for breakfast – and lunch and snacks if your test is in the afternoon – and stay hydrated. Complex carbs with plenty of fiber (think fruit, vegetables, and whole grains) paired with plenty of protein and a little fat will give your body a nice slow-burning fuel that lasts a few hours. Avoid processed/refined sugars so that you don’t get that blood sugar crash straining your brain. Energy drinks and caffeinated beverages are also likely to cause this crash and they tend to increase anxiety, so just drink water and plenty of it.


A body in motion reduces adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormones we discussed above) and gets your thoughts moving, too! Don’t do a heavy workout or take a long hike; that’ll just tire you out. Try doing some gentle yoga or taking a 10-20 minute walk outside at a comfortable pace. You should feel energized and ready to tackle a challenge when you’re done.


Make a list of all the things you’ll need for the test ahead of time, and then gather them together. This can be done the night before to make the morning even more of a breeze. Don't forget to check if you need to bring a particular type of pencil/eraser, and what calculators are allowed for a given math test.


Right Before the Test

You can actually use any of these relaxation techniques at any time: days or weeks ahead of the test, right before the test, and during the test if you start to feel the anxious thoughts creeping in, or if you start to feel any of those physical symptoms.


Relax Your Body

There are any number of excellent breathing exercises to help you calm your mind and body. One of my favorites, 4-4-8 Breathing, calms your nervous system, clears your mind of distractions, and alleviates stress. It’s also pretty quick, so it’s perfect for use during a test.


Here’s how it works:

  1. Make sure you are sitting.

  2. Breathe in through your nose, filling your belly, for a count of 4.

  3. Gently hold your breath for a count of 4.

  4. Breathe out through your mouth, but this time for a count of 8.

  5. Repeat the In (4) – Hold (4) – Out (8) cycle for a total of 3-4 breaths.

  6. Focus on your counting the whole time.


Taking a few moments to close your eyes and check in with your body can also help you relax. Do a head-to-toe scan of your body, thinking about relaxing each of the muscles as you move from your forehead and eyebrows all the way down to your feet and toes.


Relax Your Mind

There are a million different methods you can use to relax your mind and combat any negative thoughts you might be having. Below are just a few of them, and I’d love to hear if you have more to add!

  • Close your eyes and visualize your positive outcome. You might picture yourself sitting down to take the test, looking at each question, and smiling because you know the answers. You could even imagine yourself staying relaxed and confident when you come across a difficult question, using the knowledge you have to make your best guess.

  • Play some music. Before the test, through earbuds or headphones, probably, play any music that usually helps you feel calm. Bonus points if you’ve been playing the same music during your study-time ahead of the test.

  • Reframe your what ifs and negative self-talk into affirmations. Before the test, you could say them in front of a mirror, or write them out in a journal or notebook, or even just repeat them in your head. Use some of the ideas below to get you started, or create your own affirmations based on what you would say to your best friend if they were experiencing this.

    • My score on this test does not define me. It is not a reflection of my intelligence or value.

    • The anxiety I’m feeling is a form of excitement, and it’s going to help me stay focused.

    • I do not have to get a perfect score on every test, and that includes this one. I am going to do well because I have prepared, and that is enough.

    • I’m not in competition with anyone else here today.

    • It’s okay that I can’t answer this question. I can answer a different one.

    • This test does not decide my future. I can succeed in my life no matter what my final score is.

Whenever you can, if you catch yourself thinking any of those negative thoughts, either let them go, or reframe them into realistic positive thoughts. Prepare some positive replacement thoughts in advance, so that you’re ready to go on test day.


During the Test

You can continue to use most of the relaxation techniques from the previous section to reduce the thoughts and body tension caused by anxiety as you work through the test. Pick a few quick ones that work well for you, pause for a relaxation break if needed, then get back into the test.


You’ll also want to give these other techniques a try.


Sit Up Straight

Sit comfortably and use good posture during the test. Not because your mom says you’ll get a hump in your back, but because it actually improves your performance. You can breathe better when your belly and lungs have space to expand fully, which in itself helps reduce anxiety. In addition, research has shown that when you take on that confident posture (sitting up straight with shoulders relaxed down & back) it actually creates a sense of real confidence, powerfulness, and assertiveness in your mind. Conversely, research has also shown that you lose creativity and persistence and think more negative thoughts when you’re slouched.




Slow Down

Even on a timed test, make sure you’re not rushing so quickly that you miss important instructions or misread the questions.


  • Always start by reading the instructions fully before you begin. There’s an old story about the math teacher who gives out a test full of difficult problems to solve. But the instructions at the top of the test say that you do not actually need to solve any of the problems, and that you can just relax for a while during the testing time. The only students who pass the test are the ones who read the instructions first and don’t do any of the work. This is an extreme example, but if you don’t read the instructions carefully, you might waste your energy focusing on the wrong things.

  • Read each question carefully. Make sure you completely understand what you’re being asked to do. It’s extra painful to get your score back and review your answers to discover you got the answer wrong just because you missed the word “not.”

  • Read every answer choice on a multiple-choice question before choosing your answer. Even if the first answer was exactly what you were thinking, read through all of the choices.

  • Focus on just one question at a time. Don’t look ahead or look back while you are working on that one question.


Keep on Task

While you don't want to rush yourself when you're feeling anxious, you also want to maximize the time you do have for your test. These tips will help keep you moving without rushing.

  • Start wherever you can. Once you’ve read the instructions, just get going on the first question you know you can answer. It doesn’t have to be the first question. As long as you go back and check to make sure you’ve answered everything, you can do the questions in any order. It might be better for building your confidence to start with a few questions you know you can rock.

  • Stay focused on your own test and your own body. Shut out what everyone else is doing or how fast you think they’re going. When you notice your eyes wandering around the room, it’s time to focus inward on your own breath and muscle tension for a moment, then get back to the test.

  • Keep an eye on the time. You can still focus on just one question at a time, but if you notice the clock is moving faster than you’d like it to, choose the questions you know you can answer quickly first. Then come back around for the ones that might take a while.



Work with a Tutor

If you’re experiencing test anxiety, consider working with a tutor. At Sol Success, we provide a supportive and non-judgemental environment, guiding students to work through their anxiety and develop effective strategies for managing it. We can help you identify the root causes of your anxiety and provide individualized solutions. You’ll develop effective study habits to help reduce your stress, increase your confidence and resilience, and build the skills you need to perform well on exams, even in high-pressure situations. Schedule a free consultation here to learn more about how we can help you meet your goals.


 

Sources Consulted


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