Almost everyone suffers from anxiety before an exam. With some people, the anxiety continues or even worsens during and after the test. Symptoms range from the relatively benign such as fidgeting, sweating, and fear of failure, to devastating ones such as temporary loss of memory or substance abuse.
The best time to inoculate oneself against test anxiety is at the beginning of the course. Anxiety is heightened for those who are inadequately prepared. Good study strategies, attending class faithfully, allowing adequate time to complete the required work, and getting remedial help before a problem becomes critical are all good investments in future success. A student who has done everything possible to ensure success will walk into the exam room with confidence.
Those students who have chronic problems with stress may need help with time management skills. It is important to learn to live a balanced life and to manage stress levels on an ongoing basis with adequate nutrition, exercise, social contacts, and just plain fun. Learning relaxation techniques and practising them regularly will help enormously when stress closes in.
While studying for an exam, it helps to take regular breaks for a brisk walk, bike ride, or other change of pace. Just as professional athletes improve their performance through visualization, students can help themselves by visualizing themselves succeeding. When negative thoughts come, they can fight back with pre-scripted positive affirmations and memories of past successes.
It is important to stay away from people who are negative, unsupportive, or panic-stricken. Those feelings are contagious.
Arriving in good time, with all the required resources, will help a student feel more in control. Arriving very early may give him or her too much time to worry.
When the big day comes, it is important to be well-rested. Panicky cramming fuelled by caffeine or other stimulants will probably be counter-productive.
Deep breathing, relaxing tense muscles, and repeating reassuring statements to oneself can interrupt the cycle of escalating anxiety. Many students will calm down after answering one or two questions successfully. It may help to pick out a questions that is easy to answer, and do that first.
If the test consists of a series of essay questions, it is helpful to read the whole test first, allowing the subconscious the opportunity to work ahead. This is a good time to breathe deeply and mentally repeat affirmations like, “I can do this.” However, a very nervous student may find it easier to concentrate on just one problem at a time. It will require some experimentation to find out what works best for each individual.
One of the best strategies for reducing exam anxiety is not to avoid the experience, but to take as many tests as possible. Practice tests are a wonderful tool, especially if the test conditions are reproduced as faithfully as possible. A sense of humor can defuse stress as well. It is important to realize that the fate of the galaxy does not depend on the results of a single exam.
If the symptoms are so unmanageable that they prevent acceptable performance, it is time to seek professional help. Most educational institutions offer counseling services to students. Learning to master fear is a skill that can be applied to many areas of life. In some cases, there are underlying issues which need to be unearthed and addressed. With appropriate help, exam anxiety may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.