woman studying and having anxiety with test taking

Anxiety with Test Taking: 5 Ways to Beat It

Anxiety with test taking will affect a high percentage of people at some point or another. Taking exams is inevitable as we develop our skills and seek to advance academically or in the workforce. Schools, employers, and other agencies use exams for a variety of purposes.

Passing an exam can make all the difference when trying to achieve a certain life goal or result. As a teen, one of the most important exams is the driver’s test in order to get your license.

From then on, it’s about the needed scores to graduate high school, college, graduate school, and so forth. As an adult, certain tests can prove a certain level of expertise and advance your career and increase income potential.

Because passing exams offers many rewards, a great amount of pressure to perform well often accompanies the test taking experience. In addition to regular stressors and pressures, test taking can also bring up unpleasant associations and emotions. Among them is test anxiety.

Test anxiety refers to a set of symptoms that occur before or during a test that can negatively impact overall performance.

People with higher levels of test anxiety will usually perform lower than people without test anxiety. For this reason, controlling test anxiety is beneficial and can help improve self-confidence and overall results.

woman at a desk with pencil feeling anxiety with test taking

Signs of Test Anxiety

Recognizing symptoms is one of the best ways to begin to gain control over anxiety. As with general anxiety, test anxiety symptoms are experienced physically, cognitively, and emotionally.  

Physical signs include sweating, heart palpitations, nausea, a sense of overall muscle tension in your body, including headaches or stomachaches.

Cognitive signs include negative thoughts, beliefs, and judgments about one’s own abilities and performance. Many of these thoughts come in the form of negative self-talk. For example, saying, “I’m just not a good test taker”, “I’ll never know enough to pass” or “If I mess up again, I will look dumb to everyone”.

Emotional signs include feelings of helplessness, worrying, irritability, reduced motivation, procrastination and avoidance.

Factors Affecting Test Performance

While anxiety with test taking is common, not everyone will develop anxiety to the point that it affects their performance. There are many factors that influence whether or not a person will develop anxiety with test taking. Past experiences with failure, history of learning difficulties, low self-efficacy, and having a current anxiety disorder are a few. 

Some other common factors associated with test anxiety and performance include:

  • Lack of consistent study habits, lack of study skills, and unawareness of one’s preferred learning style.
  • Feeling underprepared and devoting little time to learning and memorizing the test’s subject matter.
  • Experiencing persistent and uncontrolled stress related to an overly full academic or employment workload or other life issues. 
  • Struggling with knowing what to prioritize, how to problem solve, manage time, and organize study topics and materials.
  • Striving to meet the expectations from parents, employers, or friends. There may be other people counting on you to pass an exam which raises the stakes to perform well.
  • Wanting to achieve social acceptance and social rewards such as appearing smart, capable, professional, and qualified.
  • Low motivation to study leading to decreased amount of time spent on learning and preparing. The less time spent studying, the less prepared you feel, the higher the anxiety experienced.

Do any of these factors ring true for you?

5 Ways to Beat Anxiety with Test Taking

Anxiety with test taking can be greatly reduced and managed by implementing several cognitive and behavioral strategies. Below are 5 ideas to practice before your next exam. 

Observe Your Thoughts

Are most of your thoughts containing worries about the test? Anticipatory thoughts about performance, worrying about time management, lack of preparation, lack of knowledge and abilities?

If this is the case, are these thoughts based in reality? Is it true that you need to make the time to study and prepare more? If so, see what you can do to make it happen! 

Sometimes we get stuck in our minds and don’t take action on what needs to be done. Think about what you can do today, tomorrow, or the next to increase your chance of success. 

No matter your past history with test taking, this next test can be different. Watch out for negative and self-sabotaging thoughts that damage your self-confidence.

The statements we make to ourselves really impact our mindset before a test. What are you telling yourself? Are your comments discouraging, rude, judgmental? Are they casting self-doubt? 

Give yourself permission to believe that you can do it! Reframe negative thoughts to a more positive mindset when you find yourself worrying and overthinking.

Create a Study Schedule

When anxiety with test taking strikes, many people try to avoid or delay studying. This only helps to temporarily mute worrying but it eventually increases the intensity of the anxiety.  You need a plan of action to get the momentum going and resist the temptation toward avoidance. 

Create a study schedule in which you designate specific times in the week during which you will study. Commit to using this time only for the intended purpose and make sure to eliminate distractions. 

Purposely inputting your study time in a planner or calendar reinforces the idea in your brain that it is important. You are giving yourself the message that this must get done. 

Start with small time blocks of around 20 minutes. Then take a 10 minute break. Making a commitment of 20 minutes is less daunting than 1 hour. Start small and then add more time as you build up endurance. 

Change Your Study Habits

Take note of your learning style and the best time of day where you feel the most refreshed and focused.

For example, in order to balance a busy schedule, you may have thought to leave studying for the evenings. A second look at this may reveal that you are too tired and don’t retain much information during this time.

Rather than continuing the same habit that is ineffective and leaves you feeling bad about yourself, change it. Play around with testing different ways of studying and at different times. Maybe you actually benefit from studying for half an hour before work and then again during the lunch hour.

If you realize that you don’t enjoy studying alone, create a study group. Invite friends or peers with like-minded goals to study with you. In addition to providing company, they can provide study strategies and support.

The goal here is to do something different than you are currently doing. If your current approach is leaving you feeling with test anxiety and stress, introduce the freedom of choice. You can choose when, where, and how you study. 

Once you find which study habit is more likely to stick, keep at it! Eventually, it will pay off. Most likely, you will notice the anxiety with test taking will naturally start to reduce.

Stress Management and Coping Strategies

When we experience unmanaged stress for a prolonged period of time, the body will inevitably react. You will notice such things as sleep difficulties, muscle tension, increased irritability, lowered motivation, poor concentration, and difficulty managing emotions.

Finding ways to manage stress and use positive coping strategies to manage difficult emotions is key. 

Spend time doing enjoyable and pleasurable activities. Find ways to reduce feelings of loneliness, ease the pressures and stressors that anxiety with test taking brings.

Sometimes the very activities we do that help reduce stress will also reduce anxiety symptoms. For example, taking regular walks after a long work day can lessen the stress of the day. Additionally, it will also help to quiet the nervous system and reduce anxiety symptoms. 

Seek Support from Family, Friends, or Others

Seeking support from family, friends, teachers, work colleagues, or employers can be extremely helpful. Find people you can speak with, obtain advice from, and share your concerns and worries with.

Chances are you aren’t the only one with test taking anxiety. Talk to other people about tips they have for studying. You may learn new ways to structure your study habits.

two women with a book learning how does anxiety affect test taking

Friends and family can also remind you of your positive attributes and accomplishments. It’s often easy to get stuck in a mindset that we won’t succeed or can’t do something. It’s nice when a friend reminds us of our previous capabilities and successes. 

Find an Anxiety Therapist Near You to Help with Test Anxiety

The Counseling Perch Mental Health Counseling, P.C. offers anxiety therapy in New City, NY and to surrounding areas in Rockland County, Westchester County and online all throughout New York State. 

To get started with anxiety treatment:

  1. Call 845-305-5322
  2. Schedule a free 15 minute telephone consultation online

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