Ten Tips to Help Overcome Test Anxiety

“I don’t test well.”

“Tests freak me out.”

“The test made me forget everything.”

As noted before, all of my students have test anxiety. From straight-A students to straight-C students to almost-straight-F students, no one likes tests. Everyone freaks out. Another one of my students recently asked about how to deal with test anxiety, and so I wanted to reviewmy previous tips on reducing test anxietyand add a few more.

Reducing anxiety overall is a good goal, and it’s a matter of dealing with stressors in our lives. Learning how to cope with stress will help you become a more productive person. There are many books and websites out there on the topic of relieving stress and anxiety, and any of them can apply to test anxiety. However, to calm down andreduce anxiety on the day of the test, let’s look at some ways to help.

1) Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Deep breathing ALWAYS helps.This isn’t just a psychological trick. Your body has a physiological result.Closing your eyes helps you focus on your breathing. The deep breathing slows the pulse, which slows the adrenaline pumping through your system. This brings you back from the fight-or-flight mode that adrenaline puts you in. You’ll be able to focus better on the task at hand once you’re no longer freaking out.

2) AS SOON AS YOU GET THE TEST, and BEFORE you look at it, write down the special items you’ll need. If you’re taking a math-related test, as soon as you get the test, write down all the formulas that you’ll need on this test. For example, if it’s a Geometry test about right triangles, you’ll probably need the Pythagorean Theorem and the special right triangles’ ratios, so write them at the top of the page AS SOON AS the test is in your hand. If you’re taking a physics test about velocity and acceleration, write down those formulas! If you’ve studied, you’ll know what formulas you’ll need, even though you don’t know the actual questions yet. Doing this will remove the stress you have about needing to remember the formulas. Now you have two (or five!) fewer things to remember for the whole hour. If you need them, you can just turn back and look at them: it’s now an easy note card, or “cheat sheet” as some students call it. It’s like a flotation device, to relieve the stress of swimming by yourself. The formulas are there if you need them: no need to remember them. Less stress equals less test anxiety.

3) Look at the ONE problem you’re working on. No,reallylook at it. Focus on each letter and number until you’re only seeing that one problem. A student said, “There are too many things on the page, and it makes me get cross-eyed.” Many students focus too widely on the whole page, which causes the problem you’re working on to jumble with all the rest. If you need to, use your hands or other paper to cover up the rest of the page. Too much stimuli overloads the brain, causing things to go out of focus. So cover them up! When everything jumbles together, it becomes a mess and you can’t make out anything, so of course you’re going to get anxious. When you can eliminate the other stimuli, you’ll be able to concentrate better. Truly look at the problem you’re working on, and things will come into focus.

4) Think about one problem at a time. You might think, “of course I’m thinking about one problem!” but most likely, you really aren’t. This tip goes with the previous one: focus on the one problem at hand. Most of us have short attention spans. Our minds tend to wander, and we start to think about the 50 other things we have to do or the 20 other problems on the test. So now, you’re thinking about 20 different problems, and how are you going to do them all???

Take some more deep breaths. Then look at the problem. Then think about it. (One of the formulas you wrote at the top of the page will probably help. If not…) Ask yourself questions about this problem. The questions help clear your head and guide your understanding of the problem. What is the problem telling you? What is it asking you? (Those are two different things.) What do you need to solve it? Focus on the problem at hand, and it won’t be too overwhelming. Take the test in small pieces, one problem at a time.

As for a few, more general, tips about reducing test anxiety (and overall anxiety) BEFORE the actual test…

5) Identify your sources of stress. Of course the immediate issue is: “I need to pass this test!” But why? What are you getting in the class right now? If you’re getting an A, you’ll be surprised at the leeway your grade has, unless you understand averages. If you’re getting an F, how did you get there? Are you stressed about every test in every class? Then your source of stress is actually larger than just the test or class. Are you stressed because you procrastinate? Are you stressed because of thoughts, feelings, or behaviors? Which of these? Identifying your sources of stress is an ongoing work in progress, so work on it and your stress levels will go down over time.

6) Sweat out the stress! That is, get some exercise. If you don’t like to exercise, it’s okay: most of us don’t. However, exercise releases endorphins, and endorphins make you happy, i.e., they relieve stress. Find an activity you enjoy, and just do it. It could be as simple as walking or running. (Pretend you’re running from zombies–that could be entertaining.) Or you can learn something new, like archery or fencing. Trust me, these activities are exercise. And if you enjoy them, they will relieve your stress.

7) Take control of your environment. If you’re an adult on your own, this will be easier than if you are a teen living with your parents. However, there are plenty of things you can do. Arrange your room in a way that suits you. Remove the things that stress you. If the evening news upsets you, turn off the TV. If your family stresses you, briefly limit your interactions. By taking control of your environment, you’ll feel less out of control, which will reduce your stress.

8) Focus on the positive. Count your blessings. List the people and things for which you are grateful. Whichever of these phrases speaks to you, they all redirect your energy into positive thoughts. Reflecting on the good things will put everything in perspective when the stressors start to become overwhelming. If possible, surround yourself with the things (or people!) that make you happy, and your stress levels will go down.

9) Use your senses–sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste. Of course, in some situations, you may not be able to use all five senses. Do what you can. For example, for sight, look at something pretty near you, or imagine a place that calms you. Engaging your senses puts you in the present moment. It demands your immediate attention, which pulls attention from your stressor. Using as many senses as you can will relieve your anxiety about the situation. Here are some good examples of how to use your senses.

10) Get a good night’s sleep! Most of us don’t get enough sleep at all. When we’re tired, even when we don’t think we’re tired, our body chemistry goes haywire. We become short-tempered and agitated because our body isn’t releasing the right chemicals we need. This decreases our ability to deal with stress. By getting more sleep, our physical body is better equipped to deal with the day, which means our emotions are better equipped for the day. So get some sleep!

And good gracious, BREATHE!

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