Overcoming Test Anxiety

Many students feel nervous before and/or during tests, and a healthy degree of worry actually has been found to improve test-taking performance.  When a student’s level of anxiety about test-taking increases too much, however, it has the potential to create problems (even for prepared students).  Test anxiety involves significant worry and self-doubt about one’s test performance that is experienced through a variety of thoughts, feelings, and physical symptoms.  Common symptoms of test anxiety include trouble breathing, sweatiness, nausea, rapid heartrate, ruminations about failure, racing thoughts, mind going “blank”, negative self-talk (e.g., “I’m going to fail”), and trouble concentrating. 

It can be hard to think clearly and recall previously learned information when these kinds of symptoms arise.  Fortunately, there are strategies for coping with test anxiety that can help students perform their best on tests.  A few recommended strategies include:

  1. Develop good study skills and use them regularly.  Feeling well-prepared for a test helps ease anxiety.
  2. Get a good night’s sleep. Better sleep leads to better academic performance so getting a good night’s sleep can have more benefits for test performance than pulling an “all-nighter” and cramming at the last minute.  In addition, well-rested people can think more clearly and focus easier.
  3. Exercise. Regular exercise releases tension, and activities, such as taking a brisk walk or doing yoga before a test, can reduce test anxiety.
  4. Set reasonable expectations for your performance.  Managing perfectionistic tendencies and accepting that mistakes happen make it easier to “do the best you can.”
  5. Replace negative thoughts with positive self-talk to boost confidence.  Thinking things like, “I am ready for this test”, “I know this material”, and even, “I will do the best I can” helps students feel more confident during a test.
  6. Practice relaxation skills.  Strategies such as breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization can be used to reduce test anxiety and re-focus on the task at hand. 
  7. Try not to worry about your worry.  Because a certain level of anxiety can actually improve performance, viewing test anxiety as a potential aid rather than a detriment might help keep it manageable.
  8. Stay in the present.  Try to avoid thoughts about the past or the future when studying and test-taking.
  9. Expect that something on the test might throw you off.  You might get a question you didn’t expect or there could be a section of the test that covers something you didn’t study.  If you are prepared to feel unprepared at some point during the test, it won’t distract you or trigger too much additional anxiety while you are working. 

These are just a few of the many possible tools for overcoming test anxiety.  With successful management of test anxiety, students will be able to perform to their potential much more easily. 


Kelly H. Theis, Ph.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist