Managing Test Anxiety
Adapted from a presentation developed by Bert H. Epstein, Psy.D.
University Counseling and Psychological Services
Oregon State University
Why Do We Have Test Anxiety?
Some anxiety about tests is normal and even beneficial (inverted “U” curve). A mild to moderate amount of anxiety before and even during a test can help keep you alert, focused, motivated and on your toes! It only becomes a problem when it begins to feel overwhelming and unmanageable.
The Cognitive Model of Test Anxiety
Why focus on beliefs? Because what you believe influences how you feel and behave.
BELIEFS <--> FEELINGS (like anxiety) <--> BEHAVIORS (like “blanking out,” avoiding studying, sweating…)
Situation: Hiking along a trail. You hear a noise, a rustling sound nearby.
Person “A”: Inexperienced hiker. What might she or he think about the noise? Notice how these thoughts would lead to feeling anxious (and certain behaviors).
Person “B”: Experineced hiker. What might she or he think about the noise. Notice how these thoughts would likely lead to minimal anxiety (and certain behaviors).
Lesson: what you think influences how you feel and behave.
Some Common Anxiety-Provoking Thoughts About Tests
1. If I don’t do well on this test/paper, I will certainly flunk the class.
2. If I don’t do well on this test/paper, people (family, friends, the professor) will think less of me.
3. If I don’t do well on this test/paper, I will feel extremely miserable.
4. If I don’t do well on this test/paper, it means I am “dumb & stupid”.
5. Other people are doing much better than I am. No one else is having trouble. I am alone.
6. If I don’t do well on this test/paper, I won’t do well on future tests/papers.
7. Because I’ve done well in the past, I have to do well.
8. Because I am interested in this material, I have to do well.
9. Because lots of people expect me to do well, I have to do well.
10. I must know all the material in order to get an “A”.
11. Success is defined by GPA.
12. Women and men (or people of certain cultures) are particularly suited to specific types of courses and should do well in them.
13. In order to feel worthwhile, I need to be competent, intelligent and successful.
14. In order to be liked or loved, I need to be competent, intelligent and successful.
15. Life is always fair.
16. If I can’t answer the first question, I will probably fail the test.
17. If I can’t concentrate well as I study, I will probably fail the test.
18. In order to do a good job on an essay, I must sound lofty and use big words.
A Four-Step Model For Reducing Test Axiety
Step One: Identify
Identify your typical thought patterns that may be feeding into your anxiety (see “common anxious thoughts” list for examples). Write them down. Later, when you notice yourself feeling anxious, write down what thoughts you are having.
Step Two: Evaluate
Are the thoughts correct? Examine each one objectively. Example: “If I don’t do well on this test/paper, I will certainly flunk the class”. Why is this most likely not correct?
This is just one test
There are others for this class
There is extra credit
It is graded on a curve; in comparison to others, I may be doing great
The grade is based on more than just this test (and, even if I did flunk the class—it’s not the end of the world).
Step Three: Respond
For each thought, what would be a better (more useful) thought about an exam or studying? For example:
I’ve done well before on tests. I can do well on this one, too.
I’ll put in a good effort.
There will be many more exams.
This is just one exam.
All I can do is try my best.
Write down your responses to each thought you identified before.
Step Four: Relax
Because our bodies physically feel the stress of our initial unhelpful thoughts, we can directly change this by using various techniques to relax.
Take slow deep breaths from your abdomen. Four seconds in. Hold for four. Six seconds out. Pause briefly. Think of breathing in relaxation and say “relax” to yourself. Say “calm” as you exhale.
Tense and relax muscles. Tense various muscle groups for five seconds. Then relax. Do this throughout your body.
Investigate other ways to relax, such as learning and practicing meditation, buying a relaxation tape, playing soothing music, etc.
Secondary Anxious Thoughts
Sometimes responding to the initial automatic thoughts is not enough because there are other, more intense thoughts “below the surface” of these thoughts. It is helpful to identify, evaluate, and respond to these thoughts as well.
For example, “If I don’t do well on this test/paper, I will certainly flunk the class.” What would that mean? If I flunk the class, I’ll flunk out of college. Or, if I flunk the class, I’ll have to take it again, and everyone will think I’m stupid. Or, if I flunk the class, I’ll be so discouraged I’ll leave college.
What would that mean? If I leave college, I’ll never come back and never make good money.
What would that mean? That would mean I’ll never be successful, and I’ll always be miserable.
Evaluation/response: Actually, I know people who never attended college and are successful. I can come back to college later if I need to. Lots of other people take classes over again. At another time in my life or with a different professor it’s very possible I will do even better. I am going to give this exam my best shot now—and whatever happens, happens.
Ask yourself if any of your first, automatic thoughts were true, what would that mean to you about you. Write these secondary, catastrophic thoughts down, AND RESPOND TO THEM.
Practice! Practice! Practice!
Don’t wait until you’re already in the anxious state directly prior to or during the test. Practice these techniques regularly and consistently, so that by the time you are actually taking the test, you are accustomed to easing yourself into a more relaxed state.
One final point: this may seem obvious, but it is important to make sure that your anxiety is not due to poor preparation for tests. If you do not understand the course material, or have not been studying enough or going to class and have not been adequately learning the information all along, your anxiety may be due to the fact that you are unprepared. If that is the case, the anxiety is alerting you that something is wrong, so rather than simply attempting to manage or calm the anxiety, you may benefit from learning more effective time management or study skills, or from tutoring or extra help from the professor. The Counseling Center offers classes in Study Skills each semester, as well as individual academic counseling and workshops such as this one.
Test Anxiety References
The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Edmund J. Bourne (New Harbinger, 1995) $17.95
The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Eshelman, & Matthew McKay (New Harbinger, 1995) $17.95
An End to Panic by Elke Zuercher-White (New Harbinger, 1998) $17.95
Talking Back to Automatic Thoughts (The "Cognitive Approach"):
Feeling Good by David Burns (Avon, 1980) $5.99
The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns (1989)
Ten Days to Self-Esteem by David Burns (Quill, 1993) $12.95
Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky (Guilford, 1995) $19.95
Taking the Anxiety Out of Taking Tests by Susan Johnson (New Harbinger, 1997) #12.95
No More Test Anxiety: Effective Steps for Taking Tests and Achieving Better Grades by Ed Newman ( Learning-Skills-Publications-LLC, 1996) $17.95
Reduce Your Test Anxiety!: 128 Strategies to Help You Make the Grade by Robert H. Phillips (Balance-Enterprises-Incorporated, 1996) $6.95
Test Anxiety Prevention by Howard Rosenthal (Accelerated-Development, 1994) $9.95
Relaxation tapes are available from New Harbinger Publishers. You can order them over the phone at 800-748-6273.
Especially relevant: "Acquiring Courage: An Audio Cassette Program for treatment of Phobias" by Zev Wanderer, 1991, $14.95
The above resources and external links, as well as others found throughout our site, may provide useful information about topics related to counseling and mental health.. Their listing here, however, does not indicate endorsement by the Counseling Center or NDSU. Additionally, although information and self-help resources can be a helpful adjunct to work you are doing in counseling or in a support group, we do not necessarily recommend self-help as a sole course of treatment. If you are interested in speaking with a counselor, please refer to the other pages in this site for more information about our services.