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Test Anxiety: How Can I Overcome It?

Most of us experience a little nervousness or stress before an exam. In reality, a little apprehension before an exam is normal and can actually help to perform up to one’s best capacity. However, when this stress becomes so extreme and debilitating that it hampers the performance of an exam, it is known as test anxiety.

What does test anxiety feel like? A student attended class regularly, studied hard, completed all the assignments, attended extra coaching classes, his concepts are clear, so he should do great on the exam, right? However, when he appears for the exam, suddenly he blanks out, his heart races fast, his hands become sweaty and trembling and he feels so nervous that he cannot answer the questions he had studied just on the previous night. If you often go through a similar experience, then you might be suffering from test anxiety.

What is Test Anxiety?

Test anxiety is a condition in which people experience extreme nervousness or anxiety before and during an exam. It is a type of performance anxiety that is so debilitating that it makes it extremely difficult to concentrate during an exam and recollect whatever the student had studied. Despite having enough preparation to perform very well, the overwhelming anxiety negatively impacts their exam performance. For these students, the biggest obstacle for performing well in the exam is not their knowledge or preparation, but the anxiety they suffer.

What are the Symptoms of Test Anxiety?

The symptoms and severity of test anxiety may show considerable variation from one person to another. The symptoms can be observed in the body, thoughts, emotions, or behaviour of the person experiencing anxiety.

  • Physical symptoms of test anxiety include sweating, tremors, palpitation, shortness of breath, headache, tense muscles, dry mouth, dizziness, nausea, “butterflies” in the stomach, and loose motions.
  • Cognitive Symptoms include clouding of thoughts, feeling that one has never prepared enough for the exam, comparing oneself negatively with others, self doubt, inability to concentrate, blanking out, memory problems etc.
  • Behavioural Symptoms may manifest as fidgeting, restlessness, and outright avoidance to appear in the exams. In some cases, test anxiety can become so debilitating that student develops school refusal so as to avoid his exam. Some persons may indulge in alcohol abuse or misuse of prescription drugs in order to self medicate themselves for test anxiety.
  • Emotional symptoms of test anxiety may be low or irritable mood, worry, anger, low self-esteem, helplessness, and a negative or pessimistic view of the future.

What are the Possible Causes of Test Anxiety?

The probable causes of test anxiety can be divided into biological and psychological causes. Often, a combination of various causes comes into play to manifest the symptoms of test anxiety in an individual.

  • Biological Causes

Under stressful conditions, such as at the time of an exam, our body enhances the release of the hormone adrenaline. This aids in performing better in exam by improving focus and vigilance. But too much of adrenaline rush causes the physical symptoms of anxiety such as palpitation, sweating, tremulousness; it also impairs memory and concentration, thus negatively affecting the exam performance.

  • Psychological Causes

A number of psychological factors can contribute to test anxiety. These factors include:

  • Fear of failure
  • High expectations from self
  • Fear of letting others down
  • Connecting grades with self worth

Who is Likely to Experience Test Anxiety?

Anyone can struggle with test anxiety, including a school student, a college student, or an employee appearing in an exam for a new job, promotion, or career advancement. However, some people may be more prone to develop test anxiety, such as:

  • High Achieving Students

High achieving students tend to put a lot of academic pressure on themselves and cannot accept mistakes easily. These students become overwhelmed during exam, resulting in inability to focus and recollect the already learnt topics.

  • Underprepared Students

Students who do not have enough preparation for an exam are likely to be troubled by test anxiety. This issue may happen because of not having enough motivation for studies, difficulty in paying attention, underlying learning difficulties, or lack of proper guidance from parents and teachers.

  • Students with Poor Performance in Previous Exams

If a student performs poorly in one exam, he may become anxious about it happening again during the next exam. Test anxiety thus can become a vicious cycle.

How Can You Deal with Test Anxiety?

Before the Exam

  • Prepare and Practice. Start preparing for the test when you have adequate time at hand. Being prepared well in advance will boost your confidence and lessen the chance of anxiety during the exam. Also, organize practice tests for self assessment when the day of exam approaches. Seek help from your teacher if needed.
  • Don’t fall into the perfectionist trap. Don’t expect to score 100% marks in the exam. It may be impossible to learn each and every topic in detail, so you need to focus on the most important concepts. Also, you need to accept mistakes and view them as “learning opportunities.”
  • Challenge the negative thoughts. Often, the students with test anxiety tend to assume the worst about an upcoming exam. If you begin to have negative thoughts, such as “I always fail in my exams,” “I can’t remember what I studied,” or “I am not prepared enough for my exam” etc., you need to brush off these negative thoughts and make way for positive ones such as “I will perform well,” “I am well prepared for the exam,” and “I can do this” etc.
  • Recollect your past successes. This will help to boost your confidence and shift your focus from the negative thoughts.
  • Visualize performing well in your exam. Using vivid images visualize an entire sequence of events in your mind, beginning from the moment you wake up on the day of the exam, reaching on exam hall in time 

    Image by Anke Sundermeier from Pixabay

    till completing your paper successfully. This will bring positivity and help in keeping the negative thoughts and self doubts at bay.

  • Learn and practice relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, meditation etc. can help to improve your concentration, memory and reduce anxiety.
  • Have enough sleep. Exam performance is bound to decline if there is lack of adequate sleep. Sleep provides the much needed rest to your brain and helps to improve concentration and memory.
  • Eat nutritious food. Food provides the necessary fuel to the brain to function optimally. Eat healthy meals at regular intervals, don’t skip your breakfast. Avoid junk food as it results in a sudden rise and drop in your blood sugar level. Also, avoid caffeinated beverages as it can increase your anxiety.
  • Seek professional help if necessary. Reach out to a Mental Health Professional if the test anxiety is too overwhelming. Mental Health Professionals can also help to address any underlying conditions that may impair exam performance and contribute to test anxiety such as Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Learning disability etc. A student with learning disability can avail a number of benefits such as extra time to complete the paper, flexibility in choosing subjects etc.

During the Exam

  • Reach the examination centre early. Rushing to the examination centre will only add up to your anxiety. Avoid talking with other students right before the exam as their anxieties are likely to increase your own worry.
  • Practice self monitoring techniques. If you start getting negative thoughts, say STOP to yourself. Boost your morale by reminding yourself of your past successes and telling yourself “I can do it”, “I have studied well for this exam“. Remind yourself that you are not expected to score 100% in the exam.
  • Read the questions carefully. Your anxiety will definitely kick in if you realize that you failed to understand the question half way down the line after starting to write the answer and now you have to rewrite the whole answer
  • Ignore what other students are doing. Focus on your own exam.
  • Keep track of the time. Check the time periodically, but avoid looking at your watch too frequently, as it may heighten your anxiety. Make a plan of how much time you will allocate to each question and leave some time to revise your answer sheet at the end. Do not spend too much time on a difficult question and move on to the easier ones. Highlight important points in your answer and avoid unnecessary details so that you can attempt all the questions effectively.

Take Home Message

A little anxiety prior to an exam can help students to perform to his best capacity; however, too much anxiety can hamper the exam performance significantly. Test anxiety can affect anyone but high achieving students are more prone to experience it. Letting go of perfectionism, preparing early for the exam, addressing the underlying ADHD, learning disability etc. are some of the effective strategies to deal with test anxiety. One should not shy away from seeking professional help if the test anxiety becomes overwhelming and unmanageable.


– by Nabanita Sengupta.

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