Managing test anxiety

High School test anxiety

Studying and internalizing knowledge can be in a challenge in and of itself. Optimizing your study habits, seeking extra resources from your teacher, working with a tutor when needed, and more can help with this aspect of learning. But what about when you’ve got that part down - you’re following a study plan, doing well on practice questions - then you show up on test day and that all goes out the window? Perhaps your mind just goes blank, or your thoughts are racing and feel jumbled.

Here are some strategies that can help manage test anxiety in advance and in the moment:

Rehearse by creating a similar environment for practice tests

If you’re studying in bed, checking your phone every few minutes, or in a chatty group with friends, the rigid testing environment will feel unfamiliar and therefore be more likely to set you on edge. Try interspersing your typical study routine with some instances in which you try to recreate the test environment in a quiet space, giving yourself a set amount of time to complete practice questions, and staying away from your phone and laptop (print out your practice test ahead of time, unless the real test is online).

Support your physiological needs

It is natural to have trouble sleeping the night before a test if you’re feeling anxious, or to feel queasy and not want to eat beforehand. On the other hand, getting sufficient sleep and nutrients are two foundational aspects to both emotional regulation and cognitive function. The night before, plan a bedtime that accounts for the possibility of struggling to fall asleep. You can also leverage relaxation strategies like taking a warm shower or bath before bed, reading a book for pleasure, or doing a 5 minute yoga flow or guided meditation. Plan ahead if you know that you are someone who gets nauseous from anxiety and ensure that acceptable food items are available, even if it’s something like plain oatmeal or toast.

Engage in grounding strategies

Plan to arrive at the exam location at least a few minutes early so that you can settle in your seat and practice some grounding strategies to manage anxiety and get into the right headspace. Even though an exam does not represent a physical threat, our body can still perceive it as a danger and activate a stress response, so we want to counter that and provide signals of safety. Some examples are to focus on feeling your feet on the floor and body in your seat, count your breathing and try to breathe slowly with a longer exhale than inhale, and drink cold water.

Challenge perfectionism

In addition to soothing your body, check in with your self-talk right before the exam. You may be having thoughts like “there are so many questions on this test, there’s no way I’m going to be able to finish all of them” or “I’m not going to know all the answers, so what’s even the point?” We want to reframe to emphasize that you do have a lot of knowledge that you can apply to the test, and that the point is not to do perfectly or finish every question, but to do your best.

Jamie holds a BA in Biology from Harvard and an MS in Counseling Psychology from Northeastern University. After working as a life science strategy consultant at ClearView Healthcare Partners and Axiom Healthcare Strategies, she is now pursuing licensure in NYC as a psychotherapist.

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