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5 skills to cope with test anxiety

Student studying late into the night

Nervousness and test anxiety: What’s the difference?

Nervousness is natural. While it’s an uncomfortable emotion, it’s not debilitating. You can walk into your lecture hall, sit down to a test, and still perform well (if you’ve studied). As you move through questions, you shake off your nerves and finish off strong within an allotted time frame.

Test anxiety, on the other hand, is debilitating. You can do practice problems and flashcards until you know every concept that will be on the test forwards and backwards. You go to sleep knowing you’re ready. But when you sit down to test, you feel so much anxiety that you can’t focus on your exam. You know everything but feel so overwhelmed that you can’t access any of the information you worked so hard to learn.

Skills for coping with test anxiety

Having test anxiety does not automatically disqualify you from performing well on exams. Here are five techniques you can use to calm yourself before and during exams, whether they are in class or otherwise.

Self-soothing practices: Use soothing activities and objects to stay calm.

Self-soothing is a way to calm intense emotions so you can think clearly and rationally. You can use self-soothing techniques before and during your exam.

These may include:

  • playing soothing music before your exam
  • splashing cold water on your face before your exam
  • taking a short walk before going into your testing room
  • chewing gum before and during your exam
  • use a special pencil/pen to write your exam with (I personally love G2 pencils.)
  • using a coping statement, something like “I have prepared for this exam and am ready to pass.”

You can self-soothe with any object or action that calms you. The night before or after a test, you may also self-soothe with something like a bubble bath, a yoga practice, or just watching a funny TV show (after you’ve studied, of course).

Thought reframing: Avoid negative thought spirals.

If you find that you often suffer from test anxiety, you have probably thought things like: “No matter what I do, I’m going to fail,” or “I don’t know anything,” right before an exam. These thoughts are, if you have studied, untrue, and can prevent you from walking into an exam with confidence.

When you have thoughts like these, you can turn them into more realistic, helpful ones using thought reframing. There are two parts to this strategy: first, analyse your thoughts to determine how truthful they are, and then replace negative, untrue thoughts with more realistic ones.

For example, you may be sitting down to a test, look at the first question, and then think: “I really don’t know anything, I’m going to fail.”

Ask yourself how true that thought is. If you attended the classes, did the homework, and studied for your exam, then there’s no way you know nothing.

Then, take your untrue thought and reframe it into something like: “I have prepared for this exam. I have put in the work, and this is the time to show it.”

A side recommendation for building your confidence during an exam: Start with the easiest question. Answer it as quickly and thoroughly as possible. This will reaffirm the fact that you know at least some of the material being tested.

Visualisation: See yourself as successful to increase your confidence.

If you already see yourself failing an exam, it’s impossible to take a test with a sense of calm and confidence.

So, do the opposite: Visualise yourself succeeding. See your future self-receiving a grade that reflects your understanding of course material. Don’t necessarily imagine yourself getting a perfect score. But recognising yourself as a success, not a failure, provides a real confidence boost.

Grounding techniques: Keep yourself from spiralling.

Grounding techniques can be great when you start to feel that horrid cold sweat coming on and your start to disconnect from the present moment. The point of grounding is to stay connected to your body at that moment, rather than clinging to distressing thoughts and emotions.

These techniques include:

  • Taking 10 slow, deep breaths
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Holding onto your chair as tightly as possible
  • Focusing on objects around you (your pencil, the wall in front of you, etc.)
  • Clenching and unclenching your fists
  • Noticing your body: wiggle your toes, roll your head back and forth, think about the weight of your body in your chair

Use whatever you can to keep yourself present in your body. This can alleviate the physical symptoms of anxiety and help to slow a racing mind.

Build a pre-test ritual.

At the moment, most A-Level and degree courses are involving continuous in-class testing. A pre-test ritual can be a great way to alleviate pre-test jitters and allow you to enter each exam in a more positive mindset.

Of course, everyone is different but just a few techniques we recommend include:

  • Packing your bag the night before can become a bit of a ceremony. Making sure you have the right equipment, lucky pen, calculator, whatever you might need. That is one less thing to think about on the day and is the basis of a nice testing routine.
  • Sleep is so important. Though you might be tempted to cram and pull an all-nighter, keeping to a strict sleep routine of going to bed at a set time and waking up at a set time goes towards boosting your mental wellbeing, as well as giving you enough time to calm yourself using your self-soothing and grounding skills.
  • In the morning, stick to your normal routine, get a good breakfast, get a coffee, chat to friends, but also try and do a cursory check to make sure that the information you have been revising has stuck. Flashcard apps like Quizlet can be a great way to have a quick run through without having to spend too much time flicking through notes and textbooks.
  • Music can be a great way to get you hyped and in the right mindset. Creating a pre-test playlist can be fun in itself.
  • Finally, as you arrive at the test, a deep breath in and out will help to relieve any tension, remind yourself once again of how much you have studied and how much you know.

What to do if test anxiety won’t go away

If your test anxiety is seriously impacting your academic career, and the above strategies aren’t helping, then it may be time to ask for outside help.

Almost all colleges and universities recognise the severity of test anxiety and should have built-in systems to help support you. Speak with your course leaders about how you are feeling, and they should be able to point you in the right direction. Alternatively, speaking to your friends and course mates can be a great support. You are never alone in your worries and sometimes sharing these anxieties can be a great way to alleviate the concerns.

This guest post has been provided by Nicolette Kier, who has just completed her degree in physics at the University of Pittsburgh

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