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How to Conquer Exam Anxiety

Layne Ruda

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It’s 8:57 and your American Literature exam begins at 9:00. You’re tapping your pencil on the desk running through symbolism in The Scarlet Letter when you remember to pass this class with an A, you need to score at least an 83 percent on the exam, otherwise you’re looking at a B in a major-specific course. You’ve read the novel and you’ve completed the seven-page final essay. Yet, the second the exam is dropped on your desk, you freeze. Your heart starts to beat a bit faster and your stomach turns. Months of preparation are slipping, while exam anxiety takes its place.

What are the causes?

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) defines General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) as “persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things” breaking down that “eight percent of children and teenagers experience an anxiety disorder with most people developing symptoms before age 21.” Keep in mind throughout the article that these are blanket statistics and anxiety affects students to different degrees.

The ADAA lists three major causes of exam anxiety: fear of failure, lack of preparation and poor test history. Final exams carry much weight to them, in some cases they can make or break a final grade, which causes anxiety in students. While some students perform best under pressure, others equate their grades to their self-worth, especially when it comes to exams in their field. A lack of preparation is plausible, especially when full-time students take around 20 credit hours of classes, and it can be difficult to prepare adequately for exams with an average workload. Lack of preparation also derives from poor study habits where information is not being retained because of a negative environment or distractions. Having a history of poor exam grades or experiences can influence a student’s perception of exams and cause anxiety for upcoming tests.

The physical impact

Aside from these mental causes, there are large physical impacts exam anxiety can have on a student. These include nausea, lightheadedness, headaches and can elevate to panic attacks where students have a hard time breathing and reach immense physical discomfort. Anxiety can also cause negative emotions, and it can go hand-in-hand with depression. With exam anxiety, students can become angry, sad, irritable and disappointed in themselves, which can cause a layer of emotional stress on top of exam anxiety. These causes can culminate into cognitive issues as the exam creeps closer, such as difficulty concentrating when studying due to worry about the exam itself.

Methods to ease anxiety

However, it is 2019 and mental illnesses are now widely acknowledged as well as a variety of solutions to help relieve some of the symptoms and the hardships, at least temporarily. A very easy method that can help get your head into a different space is to take a walk. When you’re studying, take a five-minute break to walk around your building and clear your mind of the test. If you need a longer break, although they may be communal, showers help to decompress your muscles by allowing hot water to run on your shoulders for a few minutes. Finally, there is always music at your fingertips. Whether you need something soft to soothe you, or you need something to crank to let any bad energy release from your body, you have a spectrum of music to help you destress before coming back to your study material.

If you’re in the middle of a test, take a quick walk to the bathroom to break contact from the material and approach it with a fresh set of eyes, like hitting the reset button. If you’re not allowed to leave the testing room, close your eyes and focus on your breathing until you are prepared to return to the exam in front of you. If you find your symptoms are above your own help, campuses have counselors dedicated to assisting students with these things. Never fear seeking help from a professional.

Anxiety vs. Worry

  • Worry is in the mind. Anxiety is a feeling throughout the body.
  • Worrying is specific, whereas the latter is a vaguer, looming feeling.
  • Worrying is more controllable because one is in a headspace to problem solve. Anxiety snowballs and solutions are trickier to find.
  • Worry is caused by more practical, day-to-day concerns. Anxiety tends to more long term and caused by worries that begin to pile up.
  • Worrying does not interfere with your daily tasks and interactions. Anxiety can be severe to the point where you begin to avoid daily tasks and social interactions.

This article was originally published in the Spring edition of College News. 

Don’t let anxiety be a hindrance to your exam success and ensure you seek guidance from a counselor about your mental health, alongside following our tips when sitting your exams.

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