How to Handle Test Anxiety

Medically reviewed by: Wendy Rasmussen, PhD
Friday, September 24 2021

It's common to feel a sense of dread when approaching a big test or reviewing each exam date on a new syllabus. But when that sense of dread turns into overwhelming anxiety, it can add crushing stress to your studying and test prep, and can even affect how you score on your exam. 

Rest assured, you’re not alone. Test anxiety is common and it can be overcome. Learn more about test anxiety and how you can manage it through coping skills and support from a SonderMind therapist. 

The causes of test anxiety

Test anxiety can affect students from kindergarten through college, as well as adults who have to take job-related exams. In fact, it’s estimated that 40-60% of students have significant exam anxiety that affects their well-being and interferes with their test prep and performance. 

The reasons for test anxiety can vary, but a few common causes include fear of failure, inadequate preparation time, and negative past experiences with taking exams.

Recognizing signs and symptoms of test anxiety

Test anxiety can be experienced differently from person to person, however there are some common signs and symptoms to watch out for, including: 

  • Physical symptoms: Headache, nausea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, lightheadedness, and feeling faint
  • Emotional symptoms: Feelings of stress, fear, helplessness, and disappointment, negative thoughts, mind going blank, and racing thoughts 
  • Behavioral/cognitive symptoms: Difficulty concentrating, thinking negatively, comparing yourself to others, and procrastinating.

Experiencing these symptoms can cause a big distraction, not to mention discomfort and even panic. This can inevitably prevent you from performing well on a test, even if you’ve studied hard and done all of the prep work you need to. That’s why it’s so important to learn the right techniques for how to handle test anxiety.

Coping skills and techniques for managing test anxiety

Experiencing anxiety around exams doesn’t have to be a regular part of your school year. Consider trying out a few of these coping mechanisms to help you better manage and even prevent test anxiety: 

1. Practice mindfulness 

Exam anxiety is often accompanied by negative thoughts like "I can't do this" and a general sense of dread. Your thoughts may zero in on everything that could go wrong, or you may be dwelling on a past experience.

To combat this, try adding mindfulness techniques to your daily routine. Mindfulness and measured breathing can help calm thoughts of dread. Focus on the present, calmly acknowledge how you feel, and visualize a scene where you are completely relaxed. This will train your mind to relax anytime you feel anxiety creeping up on you. Paired with encouraging self-talk, this can be a powerful tool for overcoming anxious thoughts and feelings.

2. Prepare

Another common cause of exam anxiety is a lack of adequate time to study and prepare. If you feel unprepared going into an exam, your anxiety levels can quickly skyrocket. 

Taking steps to prepare for the exam ahead of time can help you combat this anxiety before it occurs. Study in small sections each day leading up to the exam to make preparation more manageable. You can also use practice exams to mentally prepare for both the content and format of the exam. The more familiar the material seems, the less likely you are to feel anxious about it.

3. Speak up 

Taking care of your health and reaching out for help can make a difference in managing any type of anxiety. 

Know that it’s okay to talk about how you’re feeling. If you feel having more time to take an exam could help reduce your anxiety, explain the situation to your teacher or professor and ask if you can have extra time. If taking an exam in a jam-packed auditorium causes anxiety, ask if you can take the test in a private room. Asking for accommodations as you actively work towards learning coping mechanisms to reduce test anxiety is perfectly okay. 

It’s also okay to ask for help. Talking to a friend or family member about your test anxiety can help you build a support system as you learn to cope with and manage your symptoms. Talking to a professional, such as a doctor or a licensed mental health clinician, can also make the biggest difference in helping you overcome test anxiety.  

How to seek professional support for test anxiety 

Reaching out for help from a licensed professional and going to therapy for exam anxiety is a brave and important first step toward relieving test-taking stress and achieving your full capabilities this school year. Talk therapy can help you regulate your emotions and see things from a different perspective, helping to reduce anxiety and improve how you feel overall. 

SonderMind clinicians are trained in various types of talk therapy and can help address your unique needs and goals. What’s more? You don’t have to spend your study breaks or weekends searching for a therapist. We’ll connect you with a licensed clinician based on what you’re looking for within 48 hours. Just let us know a little more about yourself and your preferences, 

Remember that you're not alone in this struggle. Be kind to yourself and seek support if you need it. You've got this!

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