Breaking Through Test Anxiety

Kyle Haney, Ph.D. | Staff Psychologist

With the school year now fully under way, teachers and professors are hitting their stride with course assignments and scheduling exams.  Whether an exam encompasses a few chapters of material in chemistry or is a mid-term based on half of your semester’s work in statistics, test anxiety can strike anyone!  Test anxiety involves a combination of physiological hyperarousal (racing heart, shortness of breath, feeling “antsy”), worry or dread about test-taking, and an avoidance of effective preparation, which often interferes with normal learning and lowers test performance.  It can result in extreme stress, anxiety, and discomfort during and/or before taking a test.

However, there are strategies and techniques, specifically taught in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) than can help break through the test anxiety and lead to improve performance and reduced fear.  The main goals of CBT in addressing test anxiety are to 1) reduce the intense physical sensations associated with fear and anxiety; 2) modifying worry thoughts about the testing experience that interfere with learning and performing on the exam; 3) reduce avoidance of important test preparation steps.

  • Relaxation strategies – It is important to focus on self-care during exam time, including getting an adequate amount of sleep, eating at regular intervals, and at least 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day (this can be as simple as a brisk walk from campus to your dorm round trip!). Additionally, practicing diaphragmatic breathing, or deep belly breathing, can be helpful in reducing heart rate and slow down the breath when fearful in the moment.
  • Modifying worry thoughts – In CBT, we understand that the way we think and talk to ourselves affects our behaviors and the way we feel. It is important to become aware of the thoughts that occur when both studying for an exam, such as “I’m going to fail this test” and during an exam, for instance “I don’t know anything,” as they can increase worry and fear, impacting the ability to retain information when studying or get it back out during the exam.  If you notice these thoughts occurring, you can evaluate them by thinking about what makes this thought true, but also, what doesn’t make this thought true? Can I predict the future? Do I really not know anything?  And my doing so, we can develop an alternative, “replacement” thought that is more effective.
  • Imagine a better scenario – A common experience with test anxiety, is imagining the worst-case scenario happening or mentally replaying a prior difficult testing experience. In imagery rehearsal, one imagines how they are effectively coping or getting through an exam in order to have more positive images present in the brain! Imaginary rehearsal also increases the likelihood of using these coping strategies during the actual exam.
  • Avoiding avoidance – It’s always important to set realistic goals when studying and allow for small breaks in order to reduce the likelihood of avoiding studying. Get a study buddy to keep you accountable or reward yourself with your favorite treat after an hour of studying.

Interested in more formalized treatment?  CBT/DBT Associates offers an individualized program for students on how to conquer test anxiety and perform to the best of your abilities. Most programs can be effective in 6-8 weeks of weekly sessions. (NOTE: This is not a test prep course. We do not teach you how to pick the best answer on a multiple-choice test or what kind of material you should study. Instead, this program focuses on conquering the emotional component of test-taking anxiety, which often interferes with effective performance.)

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