Types of Anxiety

The first step is to distinguish between two types of anxiety. If your anxiety is a direct result of lack of preparation, consider it a normal, rational reaction. However, if you are adequately prepared but still panic, “blank out”, and/or overreact, your reaction is not rational. While both of these anxieties are not unusual (anyone can have them) it is certainly helpful to know how to overcome their effects.

Symptoms of Test Anxiety

Some students experience mainly physical symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, faintness, sweaty palms, perspiration, rapid heart beat, tense muscles or feeling too hot or too cold. Others experience more emotional symptoms, such as crying easily, feeling irritable, or getting frustrated quickly.

Changing Your Attitude

Improving your perspective of the test-taking experience will help you feel in control of your studying and may improve your performance. Don’t overplay the importance of the grade — it is not a reflection of your self-worth nor does it predict your future success. Remind yourself that a test is only a test — there will be others. Avoid thinking of yourself in irrational, all-or-nothing terms.


Preparation is an excellent way to minimize anxiety. Consider the following:

  • Avoid “cramming” for a test. Trying to master a semester’s worth of material the day before the test is a poor way to learn and can easily produce anxiety. This is not the time to try to learn a great deal of material.
  • Combine all the information you have been presented throughout the semester and work on mastering the main concepts of the course.
  • When studying for the test, ask yourself what questions may be asked and try to answer them by integrating ideas from lectures, notes, texts, and supplementary readings.
  • If you are unable to cover all the material given throughout the semester, select important portions that you can cover well. Set a goal of presenting your knowledge of this information on the test.
  • Follow a moderate pace when studying; vary your work when possible and take breaks when needed.
  • Engage in “thought stopping” if you find that you are worrying a lot, mentally comparing yourself to your peers, or thinking about what others may say about your performance on this test.

Don’t Forget the Basics

Students preparing for tests often neglect basic biological, emotional, and social needs. To do your best, you must attend to these needs. Continue the habits of good nutrition, sleep and exercise.

  • Before you go to bed on the night before the test, make sure to collect together anything that you will need for the test — pen, pencil, ruler, eraser, calculator, etc.
  • Set the alarm clock and then get a good night’s sleep before the test.
  • Begin your day with a moderate breakfast and avoid coffee if you are prone to “caffeine jitters.” Even people who usually manage caffeine well may feel light-headed and jittery when indulging on the day of a test.
  • Try to do something relaxing the hour before the test — last minute cramming will cloud your mastering of the overall concepts of the course.
  • Avoid classmates who generate anxiety and tend to upset your stability and don’t talk to other students about the test material just before going into the test. If waiting for the test to begin causes anxiety, distract yourself by reading a magazine or newspaper.

Test Taking Strategies

As the papers are distributed, calm yourself down by taking some slow deep breaths. Before you begin answering the questions on the test, take a few minutes and do the following:

  • First review the entire test, then read the directions twice. Try to think of the test as an opportunity to show what you know; then begin to organize your time efficiently. Work on the easiest portions of the test first.
  • For essay questions, construct a short outline for yourself — then begin your answer with a summary sentence. This will help you avoid the rambling and repetition which can irritate the person grading the test. For short-answer questions, answer only what is asked — short and to the point. If you have difficulty with an item involving a written response, show what knowledge you can. If proper terminology evades you, show what you know with your own words.
  • For multiple choice questions, read all the options first, then eliminate the most obvious. Unsure of the correct response? Rely on your first impression, then move on quickly. Beware of tricky qualifying words such as “only,” “always,” or “most.”
  • Do not rush through the test. Wear a watch and check it frequently as you pace yourself. If it appears you will be unable to finish the entire test, concentrate on those portions which you can answer well. Recheck your answers only if you have extra time — and only if you are not anxious.
  • If you feel very anxious in the test, take a few minutes to calm yourself down. Stretch your arms and legs and then relax them again. Do this a couple of times. Take a few slow deep breaths. Do some positive internal self-talk; say to yourself, “I will be OK, I can do this.” Then direct your focus on questions; link questions to their corresponding lecture and/or chapter.
  • If the test is more difficult than you anticipated, try to focus and just do your best. It might be enough to get you through, even with a reasonable grade!
  • When reviewing multiple choice items, don’t change the answer unless you are certain that you have made a mistake. Often your first answer is the correct one.

After the Test

Whether you did well or not, recognize the fact that you studied well and completed it to the best of your abilities. Try not to dwell on all the mistakes you might have made. Do not immediately begin studying for the next test. . . indulge in something relaxing for a little while.

Visualization Exercises to Calm Your Nerves

We use visualization everyday. Before you head off to the park, beach or store, you may have an image in your mind of the place. You may daydream about a beautiful place you want to go for vacation. These images usually put us in a positive mood and create feelings of relaxation. Visualization exercises can have the same effect. The technique is simple to learn and works quickly. Use it to reduce anxiety or whenever you are in a stressful situation.

  • For this exercise, feel free to be as imaginative as you want in creating the scenery in your mind. It’s normal that your mind will wander. Just allow yourself to passively come back to your imagery.
  • The exercise may take 10 to 15 minutes to complete. Sit or lie down in a quiet place and try to construct a scene in your mind. Prepare to relax by breathing deeply and evenly.
  • Breathe in slowly to a count of four. Hold your breath to a count of two. And exhale slowly. As you continue to breathe deeply and evenly, in your mind’s eye create a picture of a pleasant scene. Imagine yourself doing something relaxing—walking on the beach while listening to the sound of the waves with the cool fresh breeze blowing across your face and through your hair, or maybe walking in the woods with the warm sun shining on you and the birds singing in the trees. Imagine some experience that you personally found relaxing.
  • Pause 15 seconds, then continue.
  • Go on imagining this scene. Continue to breathe deeply and evenly. Allow yourself to recall the details of the experience—remembering the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feelings, and the mood. Just let yourself re-experience the moments. Breathe deeply and evenly. Just relax and enjoy the memory.
  • Pause 30 seconds, then continue:

You may now return to your waking state and remain calm now that your body has re-experienced the pleasant feelings that you had. Open your eyes, feeling refreshed and calm.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation Technique

Progressive muscle relaxation involves tensing and relaxing, in succession, sixteen different muscle groups of the body. The idea is to tense each muscle group hard (not so hard that you strain, however) for about 10 seconds, and then to let go of it suddenly. You then give yourself 15-20 seconds to relax, noticing how the muscle group feels when relaxed in contrast to how it felt when tensed, before going on to the next group of muscles. You might also say to yourself “I am relaxing,” “Letting go,” “Let the tension flow away,” or any other relaxing phrase during each relaxation period between successive muscle groups. Throughout the exercise, maintain your focus on your muscles. When your attention wanders, bring it back to the particular muscle group you’re working on. The guidelines below describe progressive muscle relaxation in detail:

  • Make sure you are in a setting that is quiet and comfortable. Observe the guidelines for practicing relaxation.
  • When you tense a particular muscle group, do so vigorously without straining, for 7-10 seconds. You may want to count “one-thousand-one,’ “one-thousand-two,” and so on, as a way of marking off seconds.
  • Concentrate on what is happening. Feel the build-up of tension in each particular muscle group. It is often helpful to visualize the particular muscle group being tensed.
  • When you release the muscles, do so abruptly, and then relax, enjoying the sudden feeling of limpness. Allow the relaxation to develop for at least 15-20 seconds before going on to the next group of muscles.
  • Allow all the other muscles in your body to remain relaxed, as far as possible, while working on a particular muscle group.
  • Tense and relax each muscle group once. If a particular area feels especially tight, you can tense and relax it two or three times, waiting about 20 seconds between each cycle.

Once you are comfortably supported in a quiet place, follow the detailed instructions below:

  1. To begin, take three deep abdominal breaths, exhaling slowly each time. As you exhale, imagine that tension throughout your body begins to flow away.
  2. Clench your fists. Hold for 7-10 seconds and then release for 15-20 seconds. Use these same time intervals for all other muscle groups.
  3. Tighten your biceps by drawing your forearms up toward your shoulders and “making a muscle” with both arms. Hold … and then relax.
  4. Tighten your triceps–the muscles on the undersides of your upper arms–by extending your arms out straight and locking your elbows. Hold … and then relax.
  5. Tense the muscles in your forehead by raising your eyebrows as far as you can. Hold … and then relax. Imagine your forehead muscles becoming smooth and limp as they relax.
  6. Tense the muscles around your eyes by clenching your eyelids tightly shut. Hold…and then relax. Imagine sensations of deep relaxation spreading all around.
  7. Tighten your jaws by opening your mouth so widely that you stretch the muscles around the hinges of your jaw. Hold … and then relax. Let your lips part and allow your jaw to hang loose.
  8. Tighten the muscles in the back of your neck by pulling your head way back, as if you were going to touch your head to your back (be gentle with this muscle group to avoid injury). Focus only on tensing the muscles in your neck. Hold … and then relax. Since this area is often especially tight, it’s good to do the tense-relax cycle twice.
  9. Take a few deep breaths and tune in to the weight of your head sinking into whatever surface it is resting on.
  10. Tighten your shoulders by raising them up as if you were going to touch your ears. Hold … and then relax.
  11. Tighten the muscles around your shoulder blades by pushing your shoulder blades back as if you were going to touch them together. Hold the tension in your shoulder blades … and then relax. Since this area is often especially tense, you might repeat the tense-relax sequence twice.
  12. Tighten the muscles of your chest by taking in a deep breath. Hold for up to 10 seconds … and then release slowly. Imagine any excess tension in your chest flowing away with the exhalation.
  13. Tighten your stomach muscles by sucking your stomach in. Hold … and then release. Imagine a wave of relaxation spreading through your abdomen.
  14. Tighten your lower back by arching it up. (You should omit this exercise if you have lower back pain.) Hold … and then relax.
  15. Tighten your buttocks by pulling them together. Hold … and then relax. Imagine the muscles in your hips going loose and limp.
  16. Squeeze the muscles in your thighs all the way down to your knees. You will probably have to tighten your hips along with your thighs, since the thigh muscles attach at the pelvis. Hold … and then relax. Feel your thigh muscles smoothing out and relaxing completely.
  17. Tighten your calf muscles by pulling your toes toward you (flex carefully to avoid cramps). Hold … and then relax.
  18. Tighten your feet by curling your toes downward. Hold … and then relax.
  19. Mentally scan your body for any residual tension. If a particular area remains tense, repeat one or two tense-relax cycles for that group of muscles.
  20. Now imagine a wave of relaxation slowly spreading throughout your body, starting at your head and gradually penetrating every muscle group all the way down to your toes.

The entire progressive muscle relaxation sequence should take you 20-30 minutes the first time. With practice you may decrease the time needed to 15-20 minutes. You might want to record the above exercises on an audio cassette to expedite your early practice sessions. Or you may wish to obtain a professionally made tape of the progressive muscle -relaxation exercise. Some people always prefer to use a tape, while others have the exercises so well learned after a few weeks of practice that they prefer doing them from memory.