Is it possible to overcome test anxiety?

Answers from Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, M.D.

A number of things can reduce test anxiety and increase your performance on test day.

A little nervousness before a test is normal and can help sharpen your mind and focus your attention. But with test anxiety, feelings of worry and self-doubt can interfere with your test-taking performance and make you miserable. Test anxiety can affect anyone, whether you're a primary or secondary school student, college student, or employee who has to take tests for career advancement or certification.

Here are some things that may help reduce your test anxiety:

  • Learn how to study efficiently. Your school may offer study-skills classes or other resources that can help you learn study techniques and test-taking strategies. You'll feel more relaxed if you systematically study and practice the material that will be on a test.
  • Establish a consistent pre-test routine. Learn what works for you, and follow the same steps each time you're getting ready to take a test. This will ease your stress level and help assure you that you're well prepared.
  • Learn relaxation techniques. There are a number of things you can do right before and during the test to help you stay calm and confident, such as deep breathing, relaxing your muscles one at a time, or closing your eyes and imagining a positive outcome.
  • Don't forget to eat and drink. Just like muscles in your body, your brain needs fuel to function. Eat the day of the test so that you're not running on empty when test time arrives. Also, drink plenty of water. Avoid sugary drinks such as soda pop, which can cause your blood sugar to peak and then drop, or caffeinated beverages such as energy drinks or coffee, which can increase anxiety.
  • Get some exercise. Regular aerobic exercise, and exercising on exam day, can release tension.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Sleep is directly related to academic performance. Preteens and teenagers especially need to get regular, solid sleep.
  • Talk to your teacher. Make sure you understand what's going to be on each test and know exactly how to prepare. In addition, let your teacher know that you feel anxious when you take tests. He or she may have suggestions to help you succeed.
  • Don't ignore a learning disability. Test anxiety may improve by addressing an underlying condition that interferes with the ability to learn, focus or concentrate, for example, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or dyslexia. In many cases, a student diagnosed with a learning disability is entitled help with test taking, such as extra time to complete a test or having questions read aloud.
  • See a professional counselor. Talk therapy (psychotherapy) with a psychologist or other mental health provider can help you work through feelings, thoughts and behaviors that cause or worsen anxiety. Check to see if your school has counseling services available or if your employer offers them through an employee assistance program.
Sep. 16, 2011