Since test anxiety occurs at both a biological and cognitive level, developing ways to manage both levels of symptoms is the best path to effectively managing test anxiety. The good news is that biological and cognitive processes tend to work together, so any effort put towards managing one set of symptoms will have a positive effect on both.
Practice these techniques before going into an exam (and even during an exam if need be), and with time, you will begin to tame the beast and regain control over your academic performance.
Managing Physical Symptoms
Simply focusing on your breathing can decrease stress. An effective technique called diaphragmatic breathing can instantly lower your anxiety level. Breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold it for 2 seconds, then breathe out of your mouth for 4 seconds. Repeat 5 times and see if you notice a change in your anxiety level.
Scan, Tense, Relax
Close your eyes and scan your body. Notice any part of your body that feels tense. Draw your attention to the tension and focus on tensing those muscles more. Hold the tension for 5 seconds, then relax. With practice, your anxiety will melt away.
Managing Feelings and Thoughts
Don’t Let Negative Thoughts Take Over
Pay attention to any self-defeating or negative thoughts that enter your mind. Notice those thoughts and challenge them with positive thoughts. Think you can’t pass? Tell yourself you prepared as well as you could. Think this one test will determine the rest of your life? Tell yourself there are always more options beyond what one test grade dictates. Past failures making you panic? Tell yourself you have learned to manage your test anxiety. If these don’t work, psyche yourself up and get excited about taking the test. Instead of focusing on the negative, align yourself with possibility and opportunity that may come as a result of doing well!
Practice the Silent Scream
If your thoughts are racing too fast to catch them, try silently screaming “STOP” in your head. This works because it literally stops the worry response that is perseverating in your mind. Then, practice one of the ways to manage the physical symptoms while focusing on a positive thought, or try to rate your anxiety levels on a scale from 0 to 10 until it is at a more manageable level.
This strategy may seem New Age, but the strategy of visualizing yourself completing a test with no test anxiety can actually work. Psychologist Alan Richardson proved the power of visualization in his famous study where he took basketball players and divided them into three groups: the first group practiced 20 minutes per day, the second group visualized making perfect free throws but didn’t actually practice, and the third group did not practice at all. The second group improved their performance nearly as much as the group who actually practiced.
Test anxiety can be managed and ultimately overcome. Practicing these techniques can be effective, but some students require extra help. Consulting with the right counselor or academic coach can be extremely beneficial if these techniques are not enough.