Updated: Aug 26
Strategies for Overcoming Stress and Achieving Academic Success
Imagine walking into an exam room with confidence. You sit at your desk, and your heart doesn’t flutter at all. You look at the test, your vision is clear, and you can easily read and understand the words on the page. You feel satisfied with your answers, and you don’t have to rely on guesswork. You keep an eye on the clock, pacing yourself, and finish with enough time to review some of the trickier questions.
If you suffer from test anxiety, this might seem like a fantasy. But if you have the right strategies, tools, and resources to help you get there, you can make this a reality. In Part 1 of this blog series, we covered the causes and symptoms of test anxiety and shared some quick tips that will help you reduce stress on test day. Be sure to check it out if you missed it.
Fully overcoming test anxiety and improving your academic performance requires dedicated effort on your part to practice self-care, develop effective study habits, and know when and where to ask for help. This article will focus on some of these longer-term strategies.
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. Please reach out to them for official medical advice!
Nourish Your Mind & Body
These tools will be useful not only to reduce stress, overcome test anxiety while you’re in school, but also increase your motivation, self-esteem, and positive thinking throughout your career.
Start a Daily Mindfulness Practice
The benefits of a mindfulness practice could fill an entire blog article on their own. Two types of meditation will be particularly helpful for you to understand your anxiety:
Breath- and body-focused meditation – This is when you empty your mind of the various and random thoughts that come to it. You might “follow your breath,” focusing on what your breath naturally does for a few minutes without changing it. Or try a body scan, starting at your head or toes and working your way through your body, concentrating on one body part at a time, and noticing what you feel there, whether pleasant or unpleasant, relaxed or tense.
Non-judgmental thought observation – This is when you let thoughts bubble up as you sit. But instead of labeling these thoughts as negative or judging yourself for having them, just notice, “I’m having a thought that…” and then let the thought go.
Starting small can make a major impact on your life, and you don’t have to do it “perfectly” to get the benefits. Keep the pressure low by starting with 5 minutes, whenever is convenient for you. Once you solidify it as a daily habit, you can work up to longer sessions.
Reframe Your Stressors
Reframing is a simple and powerful tool for releasing stress, unpleasant emotions, and negative thoughts by finding a different but realistic way to look at your problems. For example, the word “problems” definitely has a negative connotation. We could rephrase using the word “challenges” and still acknowledge that what you’re experiencing isn’t easy and imply that it can be overcome. Some examples…
Mistakes are a normal and natural part of the learning process. As a recovering perfectionist, I often practice reframing mistakes. We typically learn more from failures than from successes because we stop and analyze what went wrong. It sucks to make a mistake, but it doesn’t decrease your value as a person. I feel much more calm and competent when I remember that I don’t actually have to be prefect all the tim.
A little bit of stress can help you grow. Nothing grows bigger or stronger or better without some pain or hard work. We can’t build muscles if we don’t work out hard enough for them to ache a bit. And we can’t get smarter without taking on the kinds of intellectual challenges school provides.
Anxiety can be your friend. Anxiety is like that friend who will tell you the things you don’t want to but need to hear because they care about you and want you to pay attention. Your anxiety isn’t trying to hurt you; it’s trying to help, even if the thoughts and physical sensations it brings are unpleasant and poorly timed. If you can accept it, you can observe the feeling without being overtaken by it, and then figure out a reasonable response.
(If your anxiety is warning you about things that are irrational or extremely heavy, please skip ahead to the Counselors section below to learn about mental health resources.)
Self-care does not mean eating an entire pizza while watching Netflix, or playing video games all evening. Self-care means putting your mental and physical health first.
Nobody is perfectly healthy and loves themselves all the time. Everyone gets sick from time to time, some have chronic health issues we can’t control, and very few bodies look the way the media seems to suggest they should. But we can control how we listen to and take care of the bodies we do have.
When you eat the right balance of nutrients (including macros and micros), you feel energized and ready to take on the world. When you’re not getting enough nutrients or the right balance, you feel sluggish and foggy-brained. Not everyone has healthy options available, but to the extent that you do, think about what your body needs over what your taste buds want. Everyone feels great when the ice cream hits your tongue! But what about once your body starts breaking it down? Check in with yourself 20-30 minutes after a meal, and again an hour later. Which foods help you feel confident and motivated for longer, and which foods drag you down?
You also need to drink enough water. Water supports literally every function of your body and brain, including absorbing vitamins and minerals from the healthy foods you’re eating to improve your mood. Hydration itself also keeps your mood elevated and your thought processes clear. Seriously, dehydration can increase anxiety. There’s much debate about how much water you need to drink, but there’s no substitute for paying attention to your body. If your lips/mouth are dry, you feel tired, you feel thirsty, or your pee is dark, you need more water.
Get Some Shuteye
This one might be tricky if your test anxiety is keeping you up at night. However, not getting enough sleep leads to more anxiety (and a host of other health issues) and ruins your ability to focus. So, finding tools to help you sleep is necessary. And just how much sleep do you need? Adults need 6-8 hours daily, teens need 8-10 hours daily, and preteens need 9-12 hours daily. If that seems like a lot, remember that these are averages, and your individual needs might be anywhere in that window and may shift from day to day.
Do You Even Lift, Bro?
You don’t have to go all-out on fitness, but keeping your body moving supports mental health. We covered why in Part 1. Whether you like to walk, lift weights, run, swim, do yoga, or dance around your living room, it all counts. Even doing chores around the house counts if they really get you moving.
Cultivate Joy, Awe, and Gratitude
Most people think emotions happen to you and you can’t control them. The truth is, you can cultivate emotions by actively practicing them. When you engage in negative self-talk or cycle through your worries, you’re practicing shame and anxiety. When you rant without problem-solving, you’re practicing anger. Make a daily practice of experiencing pleasant emotions, and you’ll start thinking more positive thoughts.
Practice joy: Spend a few minutes every day doing something that makes you smile, like looking up pictures of baby animals on the internet, or texting a friend who makes you laugh.
Practice awe: Pause to observe amazing things in our world. Find the moon and admire how it glows. Marvel at a skyscraper and how many people it took to build such a gigantic structure.
Practice gratitude: Make a daily list of things you’re grateful for. You might write them down in a journal, or just make a mental note. Don’t just name them – take a moment for each to feel the gratitude in your heart.
Level Up Your Study Plan
We recently posted some study tips to prepare for finals. You can use those helpful tips for any test, not just your final exams. Give them a review, and also check out the below tips and strategies.
Use a physical planner or an app to track assignments and important dates. Don’t just rely on your school’s learning management system (Google Classroom, Canvas, Blackboard, Schoology, etc.). Teachers aren’t typically required to put everything into the system, but you are responsible for tracking everything yourself.
Take notes. Even if you think you’ll remember, or you don’t think you’ll review them, or you think you can’t write fast enough, or you don't think you know how to take good notes, just do it anyway. Taking notes keeps you focused on what your teacher is saying, and keeps your hands busy, so it’s doing double-duty as a fidget spinner. 😉
Read actively. Learn an active reading strategy that engages with the text instead of just reading it once and moving on with your life. You’ll remember more later.
Organize your papers. Teachers hand out a lot of paper. Learn a paper filing system that makes sense to you. It might take some effort to set up, but it’s easy to maintain once you’re in the habit.
Study early and often. Schedule review sessions throughout a given unit or grading period whenever you’re between big projects.
Choose your study space. Studying in an environment with similar conditions to a testing environment helps you feel more comfortable on test day and supports memory recall. Find a study space (like your local library) that comes close to the generally well-lit, uncluttered, and quiet conditions of a testing space, and sit upright in a chair at a desk.
Practice your study skills for a while before deciding whether they’re working. Some study habits take time to build in order to become most effective.
Forgive yourself if you forget to use one of the study skills you’re learning. Habits take time to build and become second nature. Have patience with yourself.
Create study and pretest rituals. Routines and rituals help our brains relax. When we know what to expect, we can focus instead of wondering whether we’ve got things under control. Review some of the study/pretest rituals from Part 1.
Humans have an amazing survival superpower that enabled our brains to reach the high level of emotional, intellectual, and creative intelligence we have: community. These members of your community can support your quest to conquer test anxiety in many different ways.
They’re not mental health experts or professional academic strategists, but as your peers, they will understand some of your struggles on a personal level because they’re in the same academic environment as you. When we’re having a problem with something, it’s easy to think, “I’m the only one.” But when you open up to a friend, you’ll probably learn that they have similar worries or challenges, even if it's not exactly the same. Knowing you’re not alone can motivate you to make changes or get help.
Your teacher can help in a few different ways. They might suggest study strategies or point you towards content they plan to test on that you should study thoroughly. If they know you’re struggling with test anxiety, they may recommend specific resources your school offers. It’s common for students to worry that a teacher will judge you, but I want to reassure you that most teachers are actually more impressed by students who ask for help than they are by students who just breeze through. You might even find that a teacher you reached out to for support will write a spectacular letter of recommendation for your college applications.
The idea of speaking with your parents about your test anxiety might be even more terrifying than taking a test. Sometimes parents have a hard time remembering what school was like, or they might struggle to understand how your experience is different from theirs. But at the end of the day, most parents just want to see you thrive. If you need help from any of the resources below, chances are you’re going to need your parents on board. If you’re worried your parents won’t understand or react well, enlist the help of a friend or teacher to brainstorm different ways to tell them that might help them really listen.
Your school counselor can help you uncover the source of your test anxiety. For example, you might be neurodivergent, have a specific learning difficulty, or be experiencing a larger mental health concern. They can help set up accommodations you may be entitled to, and point you towards additional counseling resources.
If your anxiety is severe, or if you suspect that the anxiety is at least partly caused by an anxiety disorder, ADHD, or anything else that might require a mental health diagnosis, you should reach out to a therapeutic counselor. Therapists are trained to provide a safe and supportive space for you to explore and understand the causes of your anxiety. They’ll help you do a lot of the work we discussed earlier, and find you personalized tools to help. They’ll also teach you how to manage stress, develop healthy coping mechanisms, improve self-confidence, and set realistic goals.
If you need more support with study skills and mastering material for tests, consider working with a tutor. At Sol Success, we guide students to address anxiety and cultivate successful time management, organization, and study techniques in a supportive and non-judgmental environment. We can help you identify sources of test anxiety, like not understanding the material or fearing failure, and provide individualized solutions. Schedule a session with one of our expert tutors today, to learn how we can help you reduce stress, increase confidence and resilience, and build the skills needed to perform well on exams, even in high-pressure situations.
Thanks for taking the time to explore these strategies and resources. You don’t have to implement everything all at once. Pick one thing to start, something that seems 100% doable, and as it becomes a habit begin adding in other strategies one at a time. Before you know it, you’ll be walking into an exam room calm, confident, and absolutely smashing your tests.