It’s natural to be a bit nervous before an important exam. In fact, a little anxiety is helpful, because it makes you more likely to take your time, think through your answers, and double-check your work before turning in your test.
But too much anxiety can sabotage you, making you feel panicky and preventing you from concentrating. Here are six techniques you can use before or during testing to calm your nerves so you can focus.
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1. Breathe Like a Yogi
Postures aren’t the only thing responsible for yoga’s calming effects — breathing also has a big impact. A study published in the International Journal of Yoga analyzed the effects of pranayama , or yoga breathing, on 107 students’ test-anxiety scores. The participants who practiced yoga breathing for a semester reported significantly lower test-anxiety scores than those who did not. They also scored higher overall on their academic tests.
Pranayama involves controlled inhalation, breath retention, and exhalation. It’s a core component of most yoga classes, so consider signing up for yoga — or for a meditation class, which will teach similar breathing practices.
2. Get a Cardio Burst
Anxiety triggers a surge of adrenaline — a fight-or-flight response. Exercise can counteract this response. Research indicates that half an hour of high-intensity cardio (such as running or cycling) has lasting effects on anxiety symptoms; one study concluded that anxiety relief continued for at least 90 minutes. So exercise as regularly as you can, and try to fit in a vigorous workout shortly before your exam.
3. Jot Down Your Thoughts
Having trouble falling and staying asleep, because your mind is racing with pre-test worries? Some students say it helps to keep a pen and paper by the bed. As you’re falling asleep, note down the thoughts that pop into your mind — “Reread Chapter 2” or “Ask the professor to clarify Problem 9,” for example. Then you can safely let go of those thoughts and sleep, confident that you’ll remember them in the morning.
4. Try CBT
In cognitive behavioral therapy (also known as CBT, a form of talk therapy), psychotherapists teach strategies for challenging negative beliefs and changing thought patterns and behaviors that hold people back.
One CBT strategy that’s been proven effective for reducing test-taking anxiety is rescripting. Test-taking anxiety often manifests when you begin remembering past testing scenarios in which you were extremely anxious — perhaps you looked at the test, panicked, and couldn’t answer a single question. Rescripting involves changing the ending of these bad memories—for example, you could imagine yourself taking deep, calming breaths, overcoming the initial sense of panic, and finishing your test without incident. Envisioning yourself being successful rather than failing can decrease your anxiety level.
For more help handling testing anxiety, consider seeking help from a licensed mental health professional. There are many more practical CBT techniques worth checking out. Many campuses offer this type of counseling for free, for individuals or for groups of students, so check into what’s available through your school.
5. Eat Right
You’ve probably been told all your life to eat a good diet, and evidence suggests that the right foods can be especially helpful at test time. Complex carbs (whole grains, vegetables, beans), which metabolize slowly, tend to make us feel calmer. Don’t skip meals or stoke up on sugars and caffeine before exams, since rollercoaster blood sugar levels can make you jittery or exhausted during your test. A qualified nutritionist can help with dietary advice, and many campuses offer counseling or group classes on nutrition.
Okay, this is going to sound obvious, but it bears repeating. The best way to combat test anxiety is by studying, knowing the material thoroughly, and being prepared. You should receive plenty of advance notice of upcoming tests. Take advantage of that time! Study daily for short periods rather than trying to cram it all in during an all-nighter. That will lower your stress levels not only during the test but also during the weeks beforehand. Ask your instructor for practice tests and see if you can complete them within a normal test time frame. Join a study group if you learn better by discussing the material. And familiarize yourself with all the study aids you can find. Course Hero, for example, puts study resources such as notes, 24/7 online tutors, practice problems, and much more right at your fingertips.
The more confident you are that you’ve mastered the material and learned techniques for conquering your anxiety, the less anxious you’ll be on test day. Tests are part of life — even after you graduate, when they’re likely to take the form of job interviews and performance reviews. Start practicing these strategies for lowering your anxiety levels, build your skills, and you’ll benefit for years to come.