How YOU Can Reduce Test Anxiety

  • Posted By: Alika Gillard
  • December 4, 2019
It's perfectly normal to feel a little anxious about an upcoming test, especially when it's an important test like the ISEE, SSAT, ACT, or SAT. Whether you're experiencing a lot of test anxiety or a little, there are a few easy ways to help reduce anxiety before a test.

Think of the last time you took a big test. What were you thinking about during the test? Did you feel good or bad during the exam? When thinking about the upcoming test, what are your thoughts and feelings about it? Have these thoughts and feelings motivated you to prepare more or less? Sometimes a little bit of anxiety about a test can encourage you to study more, but too much can have a negative impact on your preparation and performance. This is primarily due to unfocused behaviors and thoughts, which disrupt the studying and test-taking process. To counteract these disruptions, it's important first to understand the connection between what you think, feel, and do.

Understanding your thoughts, feelings, and actions

The Cognitive Triangle demonstrates how our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all interconnected in response to a situation. Our thoughts, whether negative or positive, help form our feelings. If you are thinking that you are unprepared, those recurring thoughts may make you feel negative emotions, such as worry and fear. These emotions then translate into avoidant or unproductive behaviors.

The Cognitive Triangle

Consider the following scenario:
Event: You are about to begin your exam. You look down at the paper and see the first question.
Thoughts: What if I get this question wrong? Maybe I didn’t study enough. I’m going to do so poorly on this test!
Feelings: Fear, worry, rapid heart rate, butterflies.
Behaviors: Tapping pencil, looking out the window, shaking leg, spending too much or too little time on questions.

This is an example of how thoughts, feelings, and actions are connected during the testing period. However, similar consequences occur during the preparation process before the test, where negative cognitive and emotional responses to a situation can make studying less productive. Depending on when you are experiencing anxiety (leading up to and/or during the test), there are a few simple steps that can make your studying efforts more effective and help keep you prepared, focused, and confident on test day.

Think about your thoughts

The act of thinking about your thoughts is called metacognition. Thinking about your thoughts and emotions is a great way to identify the root cause of a negative emotion or unproductive behavior. If you’re feeling worried about an exam, pay close attention to your emotions and self-talk (what you are telling yourself, your inner voice). In the days leading up to the test, take time to write down some of the thoughts you are having about the upcoming exam. Once you have written down some of your thoughts, address them one by one.

Take, for instance, the thought "I won’t know any of the vocabulary words on this test." Once it's on paper, ask yourself a few key questions about the thought: Is this true? Is this accurate? Is this helpful? If you answered "No" to any of these questions, ask yourself, "What could I tell myself that is true, accurate, and helpful? How do I feel when I tell this to myself?" Once your negative thoughts are out of your mind and in front of you, it's much easier to challenge them.

In this instance, maybe you would remind yourself of the strategies you know to tackle words you don't know, or you'd think about all of the books you've read and how many words you know from your extensive reading, or perhaps you'd simply remind yourself that if you don't know all of the words on the test, that will be ok. If you see words you don't know, you can always move on. Write down your productive and positive thoughts too, which will help these responses and thoughts become more engrained.

Take a break

It can be difficult to keep the momentum going when preparing for and taking a test. Many high-stakes tests are multiple hours long and can test your mental stamina. That’s why it’s especially important to take ‘brain breaks’ while you’re studying. Taking short, consistent breaks while studying can relax and revitalize important parts of your brain for studying and taking tests. For instance, after completing a study goal, stand up and stretch your arms, legs, wrists, back, and neck. This will help to relax and revitalize your body and mind. If this isn’t your thing, try doing something creative (draw, write a haiku) to focus on something unrelated to your studies and spark creative thinking. During the actual test, make sure to use the breaks you're given effectively: get out of your seat, grab some water, and do some stretching.

Take a moment

Doing some quick breathing activities can help calm the mind and body before and during a big test. This piece of advice may be especially important on test day when situational anxiety is highest. A few minutes before the exam, sit in a chair with both feet resting on the ground. Release your shoulders from your ears and relax them, rolling your shoulders back slightly. Close your eyes and inhale slowly through your nose for eight counts. At the top of your breath, hold for eight counts. Then, slowly release your breath through your mouth for eight counts. Repeat this exercise for three or four breaths. This is a fantastic way to relax your body and clear your mind and get rid of some test-day anxiety before you begin.

If at any point on the test, you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, taking a moment to take some deep breaths can help to calm the physical reactions to stress that you may be experiencing.

For more resources regarding test anxiety, visit our Test Anxiety Resources page.

Get started with your test prep today!