Test-taking can be stressful, and if you live with performance anxiety, it can feel impossible. There are ways around it, though.

Discovering ways to manage test anxiety can help you approach tests with calmness and confidence.

People of all ages can experience this type of anxiety. It’s natural and not uncommon.

There are, however, several habits and techniques that can help you manage test anxiety before and during an exam.

Test anxiety is a common form of performance anxiety, which can create stress, fear, and overwhelm before or while taking an academic or job examination.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), test anxiety can produce various physical and emotional symptoms.

Symptoms of anxiety before, during, or after a test

Not everyone experiences anxiety in the same way or intensity. What matters is how you feel and how it affects you.

There are some common symptoms of test anxiety, including:

Physical symptoms

  • nausea or stomach pain
  • rapid heartbeat
  • trouble breathing
  • sweating
  • shaking
  • lightheadedness
  • headaches
  • restlessness

Emotional and mental symptoms

  • fear
  • racing thoughts
  • memory loss
  • low focus
  • mental confusion
  • self-doubt
  • stress
  • anger and irritability
  • frustration
  • hopelessness
  • feelings of inadequacy

These symptoms may impact your behavior and performance.

You may try to avoid the test. Perhaps you feel the need to turn to substances or alcohol to calm down or stop negative self-talk.

In some cases, anxiety over testing can also even result in panic attacks.

But test anxiety is manageable. With support, you can find a way to perform well without experiencing such distress.

Whether your anxiety is general or solely focused on the test ahead of you, there are ways you can handle your symptoms.

Be prepared

There are some people who thrive on last-minute cramming. But for most folks, adequate prep time is needed.

Once you know a test is scheduled, you may want to create a study plan. A plan could help you absorb the material at a slower pace so that you can feel comfortable and confident well before test time.

Studies even suggest that being prepared helps reduce test anxiety and may improve your test performance.

If you’re unsure how to get the most out of your study time or need help setting up a study plan, consider talking with a teacher or tutor. They can provide guidance and resources to help you succeed.

Get enough sleep

Experts recommend getting 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep each night. Lack of sleep can negatively impact your physical and mental health.

In a 2007 study on sleep deprivation, researchers said a chronic lack of sleep impairs attention span, long- and short-term memory, and decision making skills.

A more recent study suggests that sleep deprivation can influence our overall cognitive flexibility, or the ability to adapt to changes in our surroundings or circumstances.

Sleep deprivation is also linked to higher anxiety levels.

Sleeping the recommended number of hours can improve your concentration and memory, which is important for test-taking.

With plenty of sleep, you can avoid fatigue and sluggishness and approach tests or other challenges with a clear head and confidence.

Diet influences brain function

Nutrition is connected to brain function. When you provide your brain with essential nutrients, you can lower the chance of anxiety.

Multiple studies suggest that a diet high in saturated fats and refined sugars can increase depression and anxiety symptoms.

Eating well-balanced meals, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding (or reducing) caffeine can help you manage and prevent test anxiety.

Saying “no” to cognitive distortions

Cognitive distortions are patterns of thinking that can cause you to see yourself and others more negatively. Identifying these distortions may help you manage test anxiety.

Negative self-talk and performance anxiety are often connected to distorted thoughts.

Research suggests you can replace negative self-talk with positive statements once you acknowledge the negative ways you speak to yourself. Self encouragement and support can lift your mood, lessen anxiety, and boost confidence in your test-taking abilities.

Here are some examples of self-talk replacements:

  • Instead of “I can’t do this,” consider “I can do this.”
  • Instead of “I’m not good enough,” you could say “I’m am doing my best.”
  • Instead of “I’m going to fail,” consider “I am prepared.”

Identifying and reassessing other thoughts, such as catastrophizing, may help you avoid jumping to the worst possible conclusion every time you take a test.

This way, you can focus on the evidence (you’ve prepared well) versus the catastrophizing thought (I’ll fail the test and the entire course).

Relaxation techniques

Research shows that engaging in relaxation techniques can help your body’s relaxation response, the opposite of its stress response.

When we stress, our body responds. And often, this physiological response increases stress.

For example, you may think you’ll fail the test, which causes your heart to beat faster. In turn, you could experience sweating and shortness of breath. When you feel this way, you become concerned and more stressed.

Relaxation techniques can help:

  • lower your heart rate
  • steady your breathing
  • bring your blood pressure down

These techniques can help you manage other anxiety symptoms.

There are also various relaxation exercises you can try, including:

  • breathing exercises
  • visualization
  • meditation exercises
  • yoga or tai chi
  • body scan
  • progressive muscle relaxation

You’ve fully prepared, are well-rested, had a hearty breakfast, and have been using positive self-talk and relaxation exercises.

But when the test day arrives, the anxiety shows up again. What can you do?

Accept that anxiety may appear

It’s common to feel anxiety while taking a test. Even those who aren’t anxious test-takers may find themselves feeling a bit more stressed than usual during test time.

By acknowledging and accepting the anxiety, you can try positive self-talk or breathing techniques to manage it instead of fighting it.

Reassuring yourself that you are well-prepared and ready to do your best can help ease the stress and allow you to move forward.

Take your time

Working too quickly can cause your anxiety to resurface, so it’s important not to rush during a test.

You’ll find it helpful to take your time to read the instructions and questions carefully.

Also, consider beginning with the questions you can quickly and easily answer. Getting them out of the way first will allow you to spend more time on questions that may feel more difficult.

Use your relaxation techniques

If you start to get anxious during your test, consider using some relaxation techniques you used before the test.

Some gentle breathing exercises or quietly counting down to ease your mind can relax your body and calm your mind so that you can turn your focus back to your test.

Ignore your surroundings

It can be nerve-wracking when others around you are finishing their tests before you do. But it’s important to remember: Test-taking isn’t a race. There are no winners or losers, and every person will get through the test in their own time.

Try to ignore what others are doing. Paying attention to them pulls your focus from where it needs to be, which can cause anxious thoughts. Instead, try to zero in on what you’re doing, and pull out that positive self-talk if needed.

Reward yourself

Sometimes, having an incentive to take your test can help you to get through it.

Maybe that means having a post-test snack or treating yourself to your favorite restaurant, movie, or activity.

Whether big or small, find a way to credit yourself for working hard and celebrating your effort.

Many people experience anxiety, particularly when it comes to taking tests. However, if you feel your fear of tests is getting in your way of functioning at school or work, consider reaching out for professional help.

A mental health professional can explore the underlying causes of your anxiety and can work with you in developing a plan to manage it.

These resources may help you: