Does your mind go blank during exams? Here’s how to overcome test anxiety

I’m not so sure of anyone who’s 100% immune to exam fears. Anxiety is one cause of failure in exams and not necessarily poor preparation.

Does your mind go blank in exams? Do you score much lower on exams than on homework? Then you may have what psychologists call test anxiety.

Everyone worries about exams, but test anxiety is in another league, causing such fear that it is impossible to do your best.

Test anxiety involves severe stress before, during and/or after exams, making it impossible to do your best work. It can make your heart feel as if it is racing, and you may succumb to “negative self-talk”, convincing yourself you are going to fail, vomit or freak out. These stressful thoughts, not surprisingly, can block your brain’s ability to retrieve what is stored in its memory, as well as making it harder to understand the questions and organise your thoughts.

Related Article: 7 Tips on How To Overcome Exam Tension

Research shows that highly anxious students score 12 percentile points lower than averagely anxious ones, and parental pressure increases the risk of children feeling physical symptoms of anxiety and distracted thinking in exams. But there are strategies to help.

So what can you do?
The key is developing good study habits (regular amounts and avoiding cramming), and understanding the exam format and marking scheme can all help to reduce anxiety, as can practising under simulated test conditions. But for a greater effect, other interventions are also needed, such as relaxation techniques in which you lie down before the exam, close your eyes and focus on breathing while tensing and relaxing groups of muscles in turn (legs, arms and stomach).

A University of Chicago study looked at anxious students in maths exams and concluded that writing about how worried you feel may also reduce anxiety. Those who wrote about their fears and insights into their anxiety did better than those who had test anxiety and did not write before the exam. “Expressive writing” may “release” more working memory for the exam by offloading anxiety on to the page.

Be as prepared as possible before the exam, arrive early, repeat positive statements such as: “Everyone feels anxious, I know I can do this.” Just as in a race, do not look at what anyone else around you is doing. Focus on the paper in front of you. Do a quick skim through to gauge the feel of the overall test. If you feel nervous, take deep breaths – and remember it really is only a test.

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