This is a guest post by Bo Stunkel, the Founder of TurboDog Learning, a test-prep business specializing in helping students beat test anxiety with mind-hacks and exercises backed by science.
Taking tests is hard and stressful, and the older you get the more difficult they become. To adjust for the difficulty of college exams, standardized tests, and professional licensing exams, there are tons of resources that you can use to prepare yourself.
There are test prep guides, practice tests, practice essays, study guides, flashcards, private tutoring, and blogs like this one. It seems that there is such an abundance of information out in the world that everybody should be passing every test with flying colors if they only put in the work.
But what happens to so many test takers is that they do all of the preparation and studying they believe they can, and then show up to the actual test and freeze up!
Whether it’s sweaty or shaky hands, a thumping heartbeat, shallow breathing, or a racing mind, most students are extremely prepared for taking on challenging subject matter, but are extremely underprepared to deal with the physical symptoms of test anxiety.
Taking a practice test in your dorm room, the library, or a familiar classroom is not the same as showing up to take a test and having one shot to get the highest score possible. During the real test, the pressure is on and it’s up to you to see if you can perform.
Many students neglect to realize that test taking is not only an intellectual experience, but also a physical one. As a result, many students think that all they have to do is follow a study guide or take as many practice tests as they can and they will automatically ace their exam.
Unfortunately, this is not true. In any professional arena, from sports to surgery to sales, the best of the best are generally the people who can rise to the moment and get results even when they are under pressure. The same logic applies to taking an important exam.
Related: How to Develop Your Study Skills
Below you’ll find some good tips on how you can rise to the occasion, take on test anxiety head on, and perform at your best.
Ways to Deal with Text Anxiety without Medication
1. Exercise Regularly.
Everybody experiences test anxiety in some form, and it’s completely normal.
Thousands of years ago when humans were hunting woolly mammoths and other dangerous animals, our bodies triggered a “fight-or-flight” response that floods our body with cortisol, adrenaline, and other energizing hormones that let us know that something important is happening. This gave us the energy, awareness, and focus we needed to survive in dangerous situations.
Nowadays there aren’t many woolly mammoths walking around, and most of us don’t have to hunt for our own food. As a result, our bodies adapt and trigger the fight or flight response during other tasks like taking an important exam. Test anxiety is just a normal part of our biology.
But if test anxiety is something that really stops you in your tracks and hinders your testing performance, you probably have a low threshold for stress. And this is why it’s so uncomfortable and distracting to experience the physical symptoms of test anxiety during an exam.
The answer? Training your response to stress. The best and most direct way to do this is by exercising.
Exercising raises your heart rate and floods your body with the same hormones that are present during the triggering of a fight-or-flight response.
When you exercise regularly, you train your body to handle higher levels of stress, and even enjoy it. It may not be easy, but it’s definitely one of the best ways to train yourself to handle higher levels of stress.
Eventually, the test anxiety you feel during an important exam is something that energizes and focuses your mind instead of hindering your performance.
2. Breathe Properly.
Most of us don’t breathe properly and use only around 50% of our full lung capacity. This leaves us at a severe disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the energetic force of a stress response.
Imagine your heart pumping like crazy but your lungs aren’t able to handle the increased oxygen intake. Many times this leads to the lungs overworking themselves and overcompensating, which can easily lead to hyperventilation and panic. Not fun in the middle of a test.
There are two very easy ways to fix your breathing and improve your ability to use your lungs to help you harness your fight-or-flight response:
- Nose breathing.
It may sound too easy, but breathing through the nose actually makes a huge difference in our ability to use our lungs at their full capacity.
Nose breathing is a crucial part of our Nitric Oxide intake (the same “laughing gas” that your dentist gives you, but in a much smaller and naturally produced dosage) which lowers the heart rate and blood pressure as a result of blood vessel dilation.
Nose breathing also delivers air to the bottom part of the lungs more effectively than mouth breathing. The bottom of the lungs is where our Parasympathetic Nerve Receptors lie, which activate the “rest-and-digest” response when activated, flooding our bodies with relaxing hormones. In this way, nose breathing is a way to directly access relaxation.
- Belly Breathing.
Also very simple, but will take a little practice to do effectively, belly breathing exercises the diaphragm.
When we breathe using the diaphragm instead of high up in our chest, we give the muscles in our head, neck, and shoulders a chance to relax. This is where the majority of anxiety-related tension lies.
Belly breathing also gives the heart and other major internal organs a gentle massage, allowing them to open up instead of being constricted by the ribcage.
Related: 7 Natural Stress Relievers
3. Preparing for Test Anxiety.
In terms of integrating these exercises into your existing test-prep routine, there are 2 recommended courses of action.
First, begin a pre-test routine where you do nose breathing, belly breathing, or both for 5 minutes before beginning a test. This gives you a head start on test anxiety and begins the relaxation process BEFORE the fight-or-flight response kicks in.
Second, begin a pre-study routine. Anytime you are about to begin a study session for an important exam, do 5 minutes of these exercises.
Over time this will condition your body to trigger a relaxation response before you begin anything test related, and will carry over to a testing environment when the pressure is on.
Just like exercising trains your ability to handle stress, doing these exercises regularly will train your ability to relax on command.