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Try Before You Fail: Simple Methods to Reduce Your Test Anxiety

A young man with brown skin and locs sits at a desk. He leans down and puts his pencil to a piece of paper, his book sitting in front of him.

This post is from a student, parent, or professional contributor. The opinions expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions, viewpoints, or policies of Niche.

Going to college is a big step, and it often triggers feelings of anxiety in students—especially those living away from home for the first time.

It’s natural to experience some apprehension in a new environment. But for some, the jitters just don’t go away. 

Many anxious students find themselves paralyzed with fear when faced with the rigors of further education. One of the biggest triggers of this kind of anxiety is having to perform under pressure in the regular tests all students must take. 

We’ve all had that nightmare. Arriving at school only to realize that we’ve failed to study for the biggest test we’ve ever had.

This is a dream, of course (and thank goodness!), but for those students who suffer from ongoing test anxiety, the feeling is all too familiar.

Luckily, there are ways of addressing this distressing condition. Some people are able to overcome test anxiety by becoming more mindful of their inner state and practicing relaxation methods, while others need outside help, such as talking to a therapist. 

The one common denominator, though, is the need to tackle the problem head-on and not rely on any one “magic bullet” to get rid of your fear. 

Prepare In Advance

Studying is hard. When you’re at college for the first time and faced with regular tests and assessments, it’s very easy to become overwhelmed.

Procrastination is a problem for many people in all walks of life and is deeply enmeshed in test anxiety and anxiety in general. The vicious cycle—anxiety, procrastination, anxiety—can become all-consuming. 

Imagine the scenario: a test looms on the horizon, and you push it to the back of your mind to avoid worrying about it. Time passes, and suddenly the test is suddenly a few days away, creating the perfect storm: your fear of failure becomes very real, yet tackling all the material you need to learn feels pointless.

You end up paralyzed with anxiety and unable to study, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the failure you fear is a real possibility.

The good news is that this isn’t an inevitability. When it comes to test anxiety and procrastination, there are simple steps you can take to combat it. They aren’t “cures” for anxiety but can be instrumental in addressing it.  

Talk It Out 

Communication is key when you’re struggling with test anxiety. Sometimes it is helpful just to tell someone what you’re feeling.

It’s important to have a support system at college even when you’re not experiencing any difficulties. If and/or when you hit a rough patch, being able to get emotional and practical support is crucial. 

Getting feedback from someone who is objective can help to put things into perspective or allow you to develop a plan to make studying less stressful

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Check In With Your Internal Monologue

Test anxiety often stems from the fear of failure. When you have anxiety that’s linked to a specific situation or task, that situation or task starts to become scarier than it really is. Fear of performing badly intensifies until the approaching test feels like a life-or-death ordeal. 

Sometimes this type of chronic anxiety requires help from a mental health professional, but in many cases, there are definite steps you can take to alleviate your discomfort. 

When you start to become aware of your internal monologue it’s important to accept how you feel in the moment and be willing to work through why you feel that way. It doesn’t help the situation if you berate yourself for being anxious.

Try to pinpoint the reason behind your anxiety. If you’re scared of failing, why? If you fail a test, what will happen? What is the worst thing that could happen? A lot of the time, the intensity of test anxiety completely outweighs the objective importance of the test in question. 

Sometimes it’s helpful to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. No matter the outcome of a test, the sun will still rise tomorrow. The world won’t end. This might sound a little extreme, but combating anxiety requires extreme measures—mentally, at least. 

Try Breathing Exercises

We all breathe, obviously, but very few of us actually pay attention to how we breathe. You might be familiar with the phrase, “take a few deep breaths,” and although that mini time-out is usual, there are other breathing techniques that work both long-term and in the moment. 

These include:

Counting exercises: these include “box breathing” and 4-7-8 breathing. Getting your exhale under control is key when you’re using breathing to treat acute anxiety.

For box breathing, you breathe in for four seconds, then hold your breath for four, breathe out for four seconds, hold your breath to the count of four, and repeat from the beginning.

4-7-8 breathing is based on the same idea but without holding your breath after the eight-second exhale. Breathe in for four, hold for seven, and breathe out for eight.

Another method is to breathe in for four seconds and out for six seconds. These exercises are generally effective for anxiety—both acute and long-term—and can be adapted to suit your individual needs and capabilities. If you struggle to hold your breath, it’s fine to adjust the counting. 

Take It Step By Step

Circling back to procrastination; it’s important to realize that a big part of test anxiety is the discomfort of uncertainty and the feeling that you’re powerless. That helplessness perpetuates the anxiety around studying and ultimately results in what you’re afraid of: being unprepared and not performing as well as you’d like. 

Breaking things up into manageable steps can allow you to move through your study material without becoming overwhelmed by it. If your anxiety is overwhelming, just sitting down for five minutes to read through a page or two of coursework can break through the paralyzing fear stopping you from moving forwards.

Ultimately, there is no such thing as a perfect plan to conquer test anxiety, but implementing these suggestions can make things easier and allow you to achieve your goals.  

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Author: Lina Becker

Lina Becker started her career in education as a remedial teacher. In 2012 she became a freelance editor, working with various media outlets where she covers topics ranging from education to productivity. Lina is fascinated by how people can use their energy to grow into better versions of themselves every day - we all have so much untapped potential within us!