10 Strategies to Overcome Test Anxiety


In order to perform well in challenging situations people need to be psychologically and physically alert. While feeling ‘psyched up’ prior to an exam can enhance performance, too much can lead to feeling ‘psyched out’. Although most people feel nervous before a test, some students experience a debilitating amount of anxiety that involves feelings of dread, racing thoughts and an inability to concentrate. This is commonly referred to as test anxiety.

Test anxiety affects many students and can interfere with their ability to study and retain information. The symptoms of test anxiety vary from person to person but can generally be divided into four categories- physical, emotional,  behavioural and cognitive.

Physical symptoms  have to do with anxiety triggering the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response and include:

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Stomach aches

  • Nausea or even diarrhoea

  • Excessive sweating

  • Shortness of breath

  • Lightheadedness, feeling dizzy or fainting

  • Difficulty swallowing or dry mouth

Emotional symptoms are the feelings students experience in relation to test anxiety and include:

  • Excessive worrying and fear

  • Feelings of helplessness

  • Panic

  • Uncontrollable crying or laughing

  • Anger

  • Depression

  • Disappointment

Cognitive symptoms include:

  • Racing thoughts

  • ‘Going blank’ and not be able to remember the correct answer, despite studying

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Negative self-talk

  • Comparing one’s self to peers

  • Disorganised thinking

All of these feelings, thoughts and sensations often manifest themselves as behaviours such as:

  • Fidgeting

  • Pacing

  • Avoidance

The stressful experience of test anxiety can make days, weeks or even months of studying, feel pointless. Fortunately there are ways to cope with performance anxiety around exams. Research has demonstrated that students who are given the emotional skills and coping strategies to address their anxiety are better able to overcome it during exams.

Here are tips to prevent and minimise exam anxiety:

1. Proper Preparation and Adequate Time: Students are less likely to experience anxiety if they feel prepared for the test they are about to take. Help them create a study schedule well in advance to prevent last minute panic and cramming. Not only will this help them perform better, it will help them get enough rest leading up to the exam and minimise the effects of sleep deprivation on their anxiety.

2. Arrive Early: Leaving early for school ensures that students do not have to worry about being late on top of writing a test. It also allows them more time to prepare for the test and collect themselves rather than rushing into the exam room.

3. Eating Well: Having a nutritious breakfast, lunch or snack prior to a test ensures that students have the energy they need to concentrate on the exam and not become distracted by their own hunger. Choosing healthy foods that are not too high in sugar can minimise anxiety and prevent a sugar crash.

4. Getting Good Night’s Sleep: Pulling an all-nighter can makes anxiety much worse, hence why it is important to prepare for exams well in advance. Getting enough rest prior to a test is likely more beneficial than staying up late studying.

5. Set the Pace: Encourage them to assess the scope of the test before getting started so they can prioritise their time and focus on their strengths. Rushing through an exam can lead to mistakes such as not reading carefully and missing directions.

6. Practice Deep Breathing and Mindfulness: This is especially helpful for students experiencing the physical symptoms of exam anxiety. Deep breathing can slow a rapid pulse and stop racing thoughts. By getting them to practice deep breathing and mindfulness techniques regularly, not just in a testing environment, they will become comfortable with them well in advance of an exam and will be able to use them more effectively.

7. Positive Self-Talk: People are often unaware of their thoughts, despite how much they impact how they feel. It is important to get students to pay attention to their thinking and any negative self-talk, such as thinking ‘I won’t do well on this exam!’ By identifying which thoughts lead to anxiety they will better be able to dismiss them and replace them with positive self-talk.

8. Stay Self-Focused: When students see that other people are already finishing their tests they may begin to feel more anxious, conscious of the clock ticking and experience feelings of inferiority. Encourage them to focus on their own test and performance rather than comparing themselves to others.

9. Avoid the Anxiety of Others: Test anxiety is common. It is not unlikely that a student’s peers may also experience anxiety before an exam. If they have a peer who triggers their own test anxiety it is likely better not to be socialising with them prior to taking the test. Or if they do, tell them to share their coping strategies and positive attitude with their friend.

10. Relax After the Exam: Taking a test can be intense both during the examination period and the time leading up to it. Students should do something relaxing or fun after an exam as a reward for their hard work and to release any tension that may have built up during the exam.

As common as test anxiety may be it does not need to become detrimental to performance and morale. With proper preparation, self-awareness and support students can overcome their anxiety and reach their full potential.