Tips for Overcoming Test Anxiety

By: Suzanne Feinstein, PhD

It is common for students to feel anxiety around academic performance, especially if they haven’t properly prepared or have had past experience of performing poorly. In fact, a certain amount of anxiety is healthy and can motivate students to work harder. However, if you have significant anxiety taking tests despite appropriately preparing, you may find that the increased pressure you put on yourself backfires. You lose confidence in your ability to handle a test taking situation. Essentially, you fear that your anxiety will affect your ability to process information, retrieve memory, and problem solve. Add to this your intolerance of uncertainty about what might appear on the test and not knowing when and how your panic symptoms will strike. Test anxiety can leave you feeling out of control. It can negatively impact your test performance, your level of confidence and your self-esteem. 

Loss of opportunities 

Test anxiety can cause you to avoid jobs, schools or any situations that require you to take tests and perform well on them. Perhaps you only apply for jobs or schools that have minimal testing requirements. You would sooner give up a prestigious career or academic opportunity than take a challenging test and fail. You come to accept that you are not as capable as you once thought you were and settle for limited opportunities.

Possible Accommodations 

Although test anxiety is not considered a learning disability, certain schools will allow specific accommodations if you have test anxiety. They may offer a private room free of distractions. A neuropsychological evaluation can be performed to determine if test anxiety has a significant effect on attention, learning, organization, memory, problem-solving or processing speed.

Curb Your Negative Thought Patterns 

Irrational thoughts can permeate your thinking and perpetuate your feelings of dread. Examples of negative thought patterns include:

  • The rest of my life counts on this exam.
  • If I don’t do well, I’m a failure.
  • My anxiety is burying me alive and won’t let me succeed.
  • Why can’t I handle stress the way other people do?

By curbing your reactions to these thoughts, you can change the way you think about them and adopt a more realistic perspective. You have more control than you may think over your academic performance. Your mind is just trying to trick you into thinking you have no control over the outcome. Through cognitive restructuring, a cognitive behavioral therapist can help you to identify the distorted thought patterns, disarm the threats your mind poses to you, and reframe them with more positive and realistic ones. 

Cognitive symptoms of test anxiety include:

  • Brain fog
  • Indecisiveness 
  • Lack of focus 
  • Forgetfulness 
  • Self-doubt 

Physical symptoms of test anxiety include:

  • Sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Stomach pain 
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea

When test anxiety becomes unmanageable, no amount of preparation will take away the noise inside your head or body. You may find yourself overthinking the easier questions, rushing through the harder questions, and losing focus as you criticize yourself for the way you are navigating through the test. You are likely easily distracted by the tapping pencil of the person next to you, the ticking of the clock, and the temperature of the room.

How to overcome test anxiety:

If you feel test anxiety is contributing to your academic performance or your overall sense of well-being, the following are several strategies that you can implement:

  • Improve your study habits
  • Avoid procrastinating
  • Get plenty of rest before your test
  • Eat well and exercise
  • Seek help from a mental health professional 

Treatments:

A therapist who is skilled in CBT can teach you the proper techniques to overcome your test anxiety and ultimately help improve your performance. CBT techniques for test anxiety require practice, dedication and repetition. Once mastered, you can break the vicious cycle of anxiety and conquer your test anxiety. 

  • Exposure Therapy:

Both real life and imaginal exposures are highly effective in helping you desensitize to the physical symptoms and emotional reactions that present themselves during test time. Your therapist will guide you in simulating real life phobic experiences using practice tests and create vivid images in which you can picture yourself enduring the phobic situation. 

  • Abdominal breathing:

Your body and mind will be taught to release tension as you slow down your breath, breathe deeply through your abdomen and exhale tension from your body.

  • Relaxation and Mindfulness:

Through progressive muscle relaxation, you will calm your nervous system and relax your body one isolated muscle at a time. You will train your mind to break away from the negative thought patterns and stay in the present moment. 

  • Guided meditation:

Through guided imagery, a calm voice will guide you along a path toward relaxation. You will close your eyes and imagine yourself mastering the skills necessary to navigate through your test with a calm presence. You will see yourself no longer cowering in the presence of your thoughts. You will envision yourself handling the testing situation in a relaxed way and feeling a sense of pride in your ability to do so.

Advanced Behavioral Health, LLP provides CBT for test anxiety using scientifically-proven techniques. Call 646- 345-3010 or email Dr. Suzanne Feinstein at drfeinstein@behaviortherapynyc.com for a free 15 minute consultation to see if you qualify for treatment.

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