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Here's How to Overcome Test Anxiety


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It was finals week. I had studied tirelessly, met with my tutor, attended group study sessions, and gone to office hours to ask questions. I felt ready, but as I walked into the test…POOF; the hours of preparation and feelings of confidence dissipated into thin air. Emptiness crept into my head, my knees locked, and my muscles tightened. Hand quivering, I wrote my name on the exam, and math suddenly looked like a foreign language. Before I knew it, the bell rang, and class was over. This is an account of my first bitter taste of test anxiety during my senior year of high school. Test anxiety can happen to anyone. It was a barrier for me, and it has been a barrier for many of my brightest students. With finals approaching, I wanted to address test anxiety and share some ways of conquering it.

Anxiety is a reaction to a stress response. We tend to think of a stress response as bad, but from a survival standpoint, this is not the case. Consider an antelope grazing on the Sahara plane when suddenly a lion begins to charge toward it. In this moment, the antelope’s body releases a hormone called adrenaline. A surge of adrenaline races through the antelope’s bloodstream and affects its body in a number of ways. Here are just a few:

  • Dilates pupils to better perceive the threat
  • Increases blood flow to areas of the brain that deal with coordination (to run away)
  • Increases respiratory rate for a faster exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide
  • Increases heart rate to push oxygenated blood to the muscles (again, to run away)
  • Slows down homeostatic processes like digestion (not important for running away)

Do you see the pattern here? Adrenaline is released when the antelope perceives the threat (lion), and biologically prepares the antelope to run away. If he is fast enough, his stress response will save his life. Humans share a commonality with the antelope; we also release adrenaline in times of stress. However, we differ in our perception of what constitutes a threat. We do not face the threat of a lion chasing us daily, so our bodies have adapted to release adrenaline in the face of other threats (whatever may feel “life or death” to us at the time). In the academic world, a final exam is the ultimate test of success or failure, tricking our bodies into a “life-or-death” hormonal response. Our bodies prepare to run away from the exam; unfortunately, this isn’t an option. We are expected to face it and conquer it. While it may seem unlikely that the antelope could conquer the lion, we must remember that our threat is different. In order to conquer the test, we must first “own” our stress response in order to manage our reaction (the anxiety) and thus calm our bodies back to baseline.

Ways to Conquer Test Anxiety

Now that we have established that anxiety is a reaction to a natural physiological response, and we’ve seen a brief snapshot of the ways in which it affects the body, I’d like to share some techniques that students can employ to set themselves up for success.

  1. Get a good night’s sleep. You are not going to benefit from cramming into the wee hours of the morning if your brain is not rested come test-time.
  2. Avoid test-related chatter with peers before the test. Take time to prepare yourself in a way that will focus you for the task at hand.
  3. Drink calming tea or a glass of water before the test, as too much coffee can kick-start the jitters.
  4. Stretch your muscles out to relieve any pre-existing tension
  5. Practice breath awareness before you begin your exam. Breath in and out through your nose slowly, filling your lungs with air.
  6. As you breathe in, think about each step you took to prepare, and as you breathe out, consciously release any anxiety that is creeping in.
  7. If you get stuck on a test question, return to your breath awareness. It is okay to take your mind off the test for a moment to re-center yourself.
  8. Don’t worry about the percentage that you need to achieve on the test during test time. While you have likely punched it into your calculator, let that number go when you sit down for the test, as it will only bring anxiety.
  9. Remember that you studied hard, you have seen the material before, and that you are capable of completing the exam.
  10. Most importantly, remember that the test is not a lion. You will survive.

Continue to work hard, ask questions, and always take care of yourself!