Test Taking Anxiety: How to Take Control of It

Test Taking Anxiety: How to Take Control of It

Dan had to pass the state US History exam to graduate in a few weeks. During the test, he swayed in his seat, mumbled to himself, sweated, and sighed. A lot.

I honestly did not know if he would get through the exam. I had taught Dan for two years and knew his strengths and weaknesses well. And tests were a weakness. I have never seen a kid struggle more with a test than Dan that day. And given the high stakes he faced, is it any wonder?

Test anxiety is real, y’all. Each school year, a number of my students struggled with tests. Test anxiety comes in many forms. It can show up as a headache, sweaty palms, hyperventilation, negative thoughts, or going blank.  

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Anxiety acts like static and interferes with the brain’s ability to recall information.” quote=”Anxiety acts like static and interferes with the brain’s ability to recall information.”]

While many kids can work through the physical symptoms, the emotional and cognitive symptoms are much more difficult. Anxiety acts as static and interferes with the brain’s ability to recall information. Kids who studied and knew the topic blew the exam, over and over again.

However, you can lessen or overcome that anxiety, improving your outlook and grades. Let’s dig into some of the issues contributing to test anxiety and some techniques to control that anxiety.

How to Take Control of Test Anxiety

Negative Self-Talk

One of the dangers before and during the test is negative self-talk.  According to Mark and Karen Gilbert, students fall into different mental “traps”. Read the statements below and see if any sound familiar:

  • Fortune-telling – “I am definitely going to fail this test.”
  • Black and White Thinking – “If I don’t get a good grade, say good-bye to Harvard.”
  • Mind-Reading – “Everyone thinks I’m dumb.”
  • Overgeneralization – “I always fail tests.”
  • Labeling – “I’m stupid.”
  • Over-estimating Danger – “I’m so nervous that I will throw up during the test.”
  • Filtering – “I left 2 answers blank – I’m going to fail!” (Never mind the other 48 questions you answered correctly.)
  • Catastrophizing – “I’m going to start hyperventilating in class and everyone will laugh at me!”
  • Should statements – “I should stop worrying about tests, but I never can. I’m so messed up!”

Challenging Negative Self-Talk

You can teach yourself to catch the negative self-talk and challenge it. Let’s say it’s right before a big Chemistry test. “I always fail tests. Why would this one be any different?” is on repeat in your head. Challenge your own thinking by asking yourself some questions:

  1. Am I falling into a trap? Yes, I’m overgeneralizing right now.
  2. Are these thoughts based on my feelings or facts? I passed the last test, so my anxiety is based on feelings, not facts.
  3. What would I tell a friend if she had this thought? You’re psyching yourself out! You’ve done OK in the past and you studied – you are ready for this!
  4. Am I 100% sure I will fail? No.
  5. If I do, what is the worst that could happen? How would I cope with it? I could fail the test. I will be disappointed, but I can stay after for help and complete test corrections.

Though it takes practice to catch and correct the negative self-talk, it can help reduce anxiety before and during a test.

Other Techniques to Manage Test Taking Anxiety

Beyond changing your mental thoughts, here are some other ideas that I distilled down into an acronym – SWIPE. (I also made my first infographic!) 


This may seem obvious, but you need to prepare for the test itself. The more prepared you are, the more you can silence those anxious thoughts in your head. Start studying at least 1 week in advance, more for a big exam. Check out my posts on creating a study plan, study techniques, and test-taking strategies to get prepped ahead of time.

Write It Down

As soon as you get the test, write down all the important facts you have floating around in your head. This might include formulas, people and place names, dates, or vocabulary terms. Having it on paper gives you one less thing to worry about during the test itself and allows you to focus on taking the test.


Read the directions for each part of the test BEFORE you start it. If you don’t understand, ask the teacher for clarification. You will also get an idea of how much time to spend on each section of the test.

Positive Thoughts 

Drown out those negative thoughts with positive ones. “I’ve got this. I can do it! I studied and am prepared for this test. Lots of people struggle with tests; my anxiety is normal. I will do my best.”

Extra-deep breaths 

Taking deep breaths can help calm down your racing heart and shut down negative self-talk. Breathe out slowly over 10 seconds. Slowly breathe in through your nose for 8 seconds. Concentrate on your abdomen as it sinks and then fills with air.  Repeat 4-5 times.

Which technique do you think will be the most helpful for you? Let me know in the comments below.


Gilbert, Mark, and Karen Gilbert. “Test Anxiety.” (n.d.) Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

Icons designed by  Becris, Freepik, and Madebyoliver from Flaticon.com

Related Posts: How to Attack tests using PIRATES, 6 Habits of Successful Students, AP Exam Prep: Make the Most of Your Time

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