College. Some of the best times of our life. College means newfound freedom, autonomy, and the opportunity to manage your schedule however you see fit. Sometimes, it means no more hand-holding or reminders from parents or loved ones to help keep you on task. Exams have more riding on them and the margin for error is pretty low. If this sounds like something you are experiencing, read on to find out some ways to reduce test anxiety.
As fun and liberating as college can be, there is no denying that it is also incredibly stressful. Especially when it comes to exam time. The truth is, no matter how prepared we are, some of us are simply more prone to test-taking anxiety. Undoubtedly, the bigger and more important the exam is, the more highlighted the anxiety becomes. When we are unable to manage our anxiety, it becomes less likely that we are able to do our best. We are less likely to have results or outcomes that represent our true potential.
Whether this scenario sounds all too familiar, or you just suffer from pre-exam jitters, here are some tips to help reduce test anxiety before your next big exam:
Practice Deep Breathing
Different parts of the brain produce different types of anxiety. Depending on what part of the brain our anxiety stems from, symptoms may manifest in a physical way. When we experience the type of anxiety where we actually “feel” it, we are experiencing a fear-based response. That puts our bodies into an adrenaline-fueled “fight-flight or freeze” mode.
These chemical and physical reactions are great reactions to have when there is actual danger. It is the type of brain-body response that kept our ancestors alive through innumerable threats. However, when we are in this state, we are reacting more on primal impulse than with rational or logical thinking. Our brain is engaged in a response that makes it difficult to access the rationale that you need in order to realize that there is no actual danger.
Deep breathing, specifically diaphragmatic breathing, will help the body to recover from this survival response and help you reduce test anxiety. When we take slow, deep, controlled breaths, we are speaking to our bodies in a “language” that it understands. Amongst other physiological benefits, deep breathing lowers the heart rate, decreases adrenaline production, decreases cortisol levels, and lowers blood pressure.
In doing so, the body begins to recover from the “survival” response and moves towards a more relaxed state. When the brain gets signals from the body that all is well, it sends signals back to them. These signals let the body know that the brain got the message and that they can continue to relax. All this “body talk” helps our brains realize that there is no actual danger. It leaves us better equipped to refocus on the task at hand.
Change Your Perspective
Your mindset about exams, in general, can influence your feelings about the situation and can ultimately impact your performance. For example, if you start an exam thinking it’s designed to trick you, you may feel unprepared. As a result, you may second-guess your answers or overthink the questions.
If, however, you can acknowledge that some questions may be tricky, and that you may not be 100% certain that all of your answers will be correct, you can also acknowledge that you have studied as best as you can and are as prepared as you can be, then even with a tricky question, you will be able to use the knowledge that you already have in order to rule out certain answers and thus increase your chances of getting it right. Just acknowledging those worries can reduce test anxiety.
If your worries or thoughts are more about a Professor who has a reputation for giving “tricky” or difficult exams, it might also help to acknowledge that at the end of the day, Professors do ultimately want you to pass and it is highly unlikely that their main goal is to trick you up and end up with a high failure rate.
It is important to note that when trying to reduce test anxiety, you are reframing the way that you are thinking about an exam is not about denying that you are anxious or worried but rather, it is about trying to change your perspective so that you can go into it feeling more confident in your abilities and less focused on the negative “what ifs”.
Sometime around middle or junior high school, we are taught to read through the test first before answering any questions, but when you feel that you are racing against time, this step often times seems easier said than done, especially when good ol’ anxiety starts kicking in.
However, if you can:
(a) take a deep breath to talk your body down a bit, then
(b) commit to taking three or four minutes to skim through the exam in order to assess what questions are ones that you may already know and
(c) answer those first to set yourself off to a good start, you may find that
(d) all of these simple steps may help you to feel more relaxed, more confident and as a result, you will be able to better access the information in your brain that is all ready for you to access when you need it.
The correct answer is: D! (Got that? We was trying to be clever here… get it? Okay, moving on then…)
You may have a friend who has a photographic memory and never has to study and can therefore focus more on hanging out than on the books. And then there’s that other friend who has 153 post-it notes all over her room in order to remember her facts. Neither of them claims to ever have slept before an exam but still get a decent grade. Is this all possible? Maybe it is, but that does not mean that other people’s pre-exam strategies and methods for studying will work for you.
The truth is that having a lack of sleep will most definitely impact your ability to focus and concentrate, so having some a good night’s sleep can do a lot more for you than staying up all night to binge study the night before exam day.
Also, finding the way to study that works best for you is an incredibly helpful way of learning the material that you need. You might be a visual learner who does well with drawing little symbols or arrows that connect concepts for you. Or perhaps you are a social learner and learn better by being part of a study group.
Take a look at the different learning styles outlined here and see if you identify more with any of them, then try to implement a method of studying that fits in with one of these. You might find that by doing that, you retain more information for a longer period of time (and of course, you become less anxious!):
- Visual (spatial): You prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding
- Aural (auditory-musical): You prefer using sound and music
- Verbal (linguistic): You prefer using words, both in speech and writing
- Physical (kinesthetic): You prefer using your body, hands, and sense of touch
- Logical (mathematical): You prefer using logic, reasoning, and systems
- Social (interpersonal): You prefer to learn in groups or with other people
- Solitary (intrapersonal): You prefer to work alone and use self-study
If you already incorporate exercise into your daily routine, you are familiar with that feeling of refreshed energy that follows shortly after some physical activity. Exercising can help to release built-up tension in your muscles and has the added benefit of releasing endorphins, a “feel-good” hormone that is secreted by the brain and nervous system after you engage in physical activity. The release of endorphins will not only help you to feel better, but they will also put you in a much better frame of mind to beat that exam.
You don’t have to wait for your next big exam to try this out. Start tomorrow morning with 5 to 10 minutes of light exercise or stretches and do the same for yourself on the morning of your next exam. It is an achievable goal that you can implement right away with more than likely favorable results!
About the author(s)
Karen is the founder and Clinical Director of Cohesive Therapy NYC. She earned a Masters in Social Work from New York University and has extensive training in Hypnosis, Anxiety, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Brainspotting, and DGBI. She is a member of the Institute of Certified Anxiety Treatment Professionals, The Rome Foundation, the National Association of Social Workers, The Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, and the American Social of Clinical Hypnosis.