Ask a Therapist: Test Anxiety

You walk into the room for your test.  You feel focused and ready to take on the challenge. You sit down and notice your attention is starting to jump around.  You feel your heart rate increase and your breathing feels a bit forced.  As you start to work you realize you don’t remember anything you studied and you start to sweat.  You’ve just experienced test anxiety.

Anxiety is a heightened state that is interpreted as negative or worrisome.  The symptoms can include feelings of panic, fear, and uneasiness.  People often feel an inability to be still, shortness of breath, dry mouth, numbness or tingling of hands or feet, nausea, muscle tension, and sweaty hands and/or feet.  Some people feel anxiety a lot and others only in certain situations, such as when they are faced with a test or giving a presentation.  The physical symptoms are usually accompanied by thoughts of fear and worry.  It’s not uncommon to feel that extreme anxiety, or a panic attack, is life threatening and many people go to emergency rooms believing they are having a heart attack.  Anxiety and panic attacks are not just “all in your head.”  They are in your head, and in your body, and cause a lot of fear and worry.

Anxiety can be debilitating but there are many things you can do to reduce it.  The first step is to be aware of your body and what is happening.  The second step is to focus your thinking so you can make good decisions.  If you experience anxiety on a daily basis it’s helpful to seek supportive counseling and perhaps medication.  The staff members at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) are experienced with different diagnoses of anxiety and can provide help that makes a difference in your daily life if you experience anxiety.

If you only experience anxiety in certain situations there are many things you can do to lower anxiety levels so you can be more effective.  When you sit down to take a test or stand up to do a presentation, you want to be in the best possible physical state and have your mind focused.  Imagine a scale of activation for your body: 0 would be asleep or totally relaxed, and 10 would be freaking out.  To do well on a test or presentation you’d need to be in the midrange, or the window of effectiveness.  Aim for being awake, aware, and energized enough to recall information and pay attention.

Go back to a few weeks before your test or presentation.  Knowing the subject matter and what will be on the test is critical.  No amount of anxiety lowering skills can make up for not preparing.  Attend every class and read the assigned reading.  If you don’t understand something you can discuss it with classmates or get extra help from the professor or teaching assistant as soon as you realize you’re struggling.  Cramming at the last minute is a set up for failure because the information is simply stored in short term memory without any meaningful context and can be easily forgotten.

After you’ve attended class, studied, and you know the material you need to think about preparing physically.  In the days leading up to the test or presentation it helps to get enough sleep and to eat well.  It’s hard for your body to stay in a stable state if you’re exhausted or hungry.  You should also practice a relaxation skill to combat anxiety or nerves.  Just like with studying, you can’t expect to do well at relaxing your body in a tense situation if you haven’t practiced.

Yoga, meditation, relaxation, and other mindfulness practices can help you access a calm state when you need it.  Check out yoga classes offered at the ARC and weekly meditation offered in Upper Monty.  If you’d rather set up something yourself, a quick search of the Internet will turn up many guided relaxation practices or meditation options.  You can practice relaxing to music you really like.  If you pick the same song every day you could play that as you walk to your test to ensure you’re in your relaxed attentive state and ready to do your best.

Some people find creating a safe place to be helpful.  You can visualize a place you have visited that makes you feel really safe and calm or you can create a fantasy safe place.  Practice experiencing and relaxing in your safe space daily.  You can pair the practice with a cue word that you can then use when you feel the test anxiety.  For example, if your safe place is sitting in a forest and you have practiced feeling the cool air, standing on the soft group, seeing the green trees and filtered sunlight – you could use the word “forest” to bring that whole scene back quickly.  When you sit down to do your test or before you do your presentation take about 30 seconds to say your cue word to yourself and allow your body to relax as you feel your safe place.  You can recall the safe place as often as you need to bring your anxiety down to the baseline level where you can focus on the test.

Another skill you can use to bring down anxiety and be calm during a test or presentation is holding an object or touchstone.  If you pair practicing relaxation with holding a smooth stone, or any other object you can carry with you, that object will then be the shortcut to a calmer state.  If you have to do a presentation it makes more sense to have a touchstone type of cue so you don’t lose the flow of the presentation by pausing to breathe or visualize.

Going back to the window of effectiveness idea, imagine what happens if you show up at a test and you’re feeling under – activated.  You could be exhausted and worn out and barely able to find the energy to pay attention to the questions on the test.  If this happens there you can try to increase your attention and mood.  Anything that gets your heart pumping a bit faster will feel energizing so do a quick walk, jump around, or shake your arms and legs.  Try doing a cross crawl motion – alternate touching each elbow to the opposite knee.  A judicious dose of caffeine can increase attention but you have to be careful not to overshoot and get jittery.  Use a dose of coffee only if you know how it affects you and you’ve had caffeine in the past.

The final skill to use to combat test anxiety is to look at your thinking.  Any time your thoughts stray in the direction of thinking things are awful, horrible, and impossible your body starts to react  to a perceived threat.  Your mind is creating fear and your body responds whether the fear is a tough exam or a predator chasing you.  Reframe your thoughts.  Move from thinking something is impossible to thinking you need to work hard.  Give yourself the ability to move in a positive direction.  You can work harder but you can’t do the impossible.  It may seem like semantics but it makes a big difference to your level of anxiety.

Study well, take good care of your body, practice a relaxation technique, and head in to that test or presentation knowing you’ll do the best you can do.  You’ve got this!


Apps available to help with anxiety (most are iOS, Android, and Web)

Stop  Beathe & Think lets you select your mood and choose how you are feeling at a particular moment. It then offers up a selection of guided meditations, approximately 10 minutes long, that are suited to your current state of mind. allows you to choose the amount of time for your mindfulness practice – anywhere from 1 to 30 minutes or more. You choose a nature scene from a selection of scenes (i.e. rolling ocean waves, snowflakes falling, etc.) and focus on this image for the duration of the time.

Headspace guides you through 10 minutes of meditation for 10 days, helping to create the habit of mindfulness practice.

My Calm Beat emphasizes your breath and offers various exercises to help you use your breathing as a way to bring on a calmer state of being.

Insight Timer offers the option of setting a timer with gentle bells to mark time for your meditation practice. It also has a large selection of guided meditations around specific topics from experts and practitioners around the world.

Transform Your Life gives you daily quote for 365 days with a suggestion for a mindfulness practice to go along with the quote. The quotes can be a gentle reminder and call up greater awareness and compassion.

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