group of students studying on the Quad

Take Control of Test Anxiety with These Tips

Greg Vander Wal

about the AUTHOR

Dr. Greg Vander Wal is the executive director of The University of Alabama Counseling Center and a licensed psychologist. Vander Wal has over a decade of experience in collegiate mental health services.

As we reach the end of the semester, you and many of your peers may experience anxiety about completing assignments, final exams or other stressful concerns. Anxiety is a feeling of nervousness, worry or unease and, at its core, it is our body responding to stress or a perceived future threat.

Anxiety is very similar to fear in that way. Symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • Tightness in chest
  • Feeling nauseated or having “butterflies”
  • Sweating
  • Tunnel vision
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Muscle tension
  • Trembling/shaking

Everyone experiences anxiety sometimes, and often some low to moderate anxiety can be helpful (for example, warning us of danger, motivating us to study, etc.). However, when it becomes overly severe or long-lasting, it can be disruptive and create significant distress.

Common problematic experiences with anxiety may include:

  • Having feelings of panic
  • Desire to avoid or procrastinate
  • Feeling restless or on edge
  • Becoming easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating or retaining information
  • Feeling irritable
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Racing thoughts or worries, especially about the “worst case scenario”
  • Obsessive thinking
  • Compulsive behaviors and rituals

Easing Anxiety

There are many steps you can take to reduce the severity of anxiety and its impact on your day-to-day life. One helpful step can be to talk through anxious concerns with someone else. Anxiety thrives in silence, and getting another person’s point of view can help put worries in their proper context.

Some other actions you can take include:

  • Focus on self-care and stress management. Engage in daily exercise, get sufficient sleep and eat a healthy diet. Give yourself space to unwind and relax. Engage with people in your support system. Use relaxation techniques. There are many apps and YouTube videos available.
  • Prioritize time and task management. Often, we get overwhelmed by the perceived enormity of the work in front of us. This leads to procrastination. Bringing structure to that chaos can help reduce anxiety.
    • Organize your workspace and your schedule to help you plan and work ahead. Set intermediate goals for larger tasks. Plan small attainable steps to resolve stressors rather than spending time worrying.
    • Make the first step small enough to actually do it. This often provides momentum to continue.
  • Practice healthy problem-solving skills. Identify the root of the problem. Identify what is in your control. Identify steps to resolving the problem. Implement solutions one step at a time.
  • Engage goals and personal values to build courage to confront anxiety-provoking situations. It is easier to confront challenges and fears if we connect that action to something important to us. The actual problem is often not as bad as the anticipation of confronting the problem.
  • Challenge unhelpful thoughts and attitudes. Our perception of the problem is often different than the reality of the problem. There are many ways to think about our experiences and some are more helpful in encouraging us to take action to solve the problem.

Tips to Conquer Anxiety about Academics

Anxiety over academic performance, exams and grades is also a very common concern for college students. In addition to the tips listed above, here are some helpful steps to take to help manage academic anxiety.

  • Prepare effectively. Start early and don’t cram. If you’re not prepared for the exam, that will increase anxiety.
  • Be intentional about your study methods. The Capstone Center for Student Success has many wonderful resources to help improve your academic skills and habits.
  • Prepare your body to do well during an exam. Get a good night’s sleep before an exam, eat a balanced meal and avoid too much caffeine. Don’t cram right before an exam, but rather give yourself space to relax before the exam if able.
  • If you are feeling anxious during an exam, take brief mental breaks to take deep breaths or engage in a short mindfulness exercise. Keep your perspective healthy by avoiding perfectionistic thinking or catastrophic worries.

Anxiety is the number one reported mental health concern for college students. While this is most commonly related to a particular stressor in your environment (academics, relationships, finances, etc.), it can also represent a more serious mental health condition that may require mental health support and treatment.

If you feel that anxiety symptoms interfere with your ability to function, impair your ability to make decisions, interfere with your ability to adequately care for yourself or create significant distress, please reach out for help. The Counseling Center is a great place to start!

Stress Free Days are coming!

Each fall and spring study week, the Counseling Center and University Programs partner to bring Stress Free Days to campus. This is a week of events that provide opportunities for students to de-stress while they prepare for final exams. There will be events all study week, Dec. 4-8. As we get closer to the date, details will be provided through University Programs. We’d love to see you at any of these events!

Online Resource for Students!

Students now have access to an online peer support community called Togetherall.

Togetherall’s online community is clinically moderated by mental health professionals and offers you and your peers a safe and anonymous place to express your thoughts, concerns and triumphs. Resources are FREE for UA students (aged 16+) to use and are available 24/7/365. You can give and get support from others as well as access mental health and well-being courses and resources. To learn more, watch this short explainer video. It’s free, anonymous and available now. Sign up here!