Handling Test Stress

Female student studying laptop screen intently

Most students experience some stress and perhaps a bit of anxiety when a big test is coming up. Feeling a little on edge is often a good thing because it drives many students to dedicate more time to studying.

But problems can occur when you experience extreme test stress that interferes with your quality of life in one or both of the following ways:

  • You struggle to concentrate and have trouble studying for big tests. The days and hours leading up to an important test are wasted in anxiety, fear, and overthinking. 

  • You stress out over every test, regardless of significance. It may feel as if you’re always on edge because there’s always another test or quiz to worry about.

In addition to difficulty focusing, some common signs of extreme test anxiety include nausea, headaches, frustration, and mood swings. You may find it difficult to sleep at night because your mind is spinning with thoughts of an upcoming test and fears about the worst possible outcome.

For some people, test anxiety may also lead to physical symptoms, such as heart palpitations, lightheadedness, and difficulty breathing. Even mild symptoms of stress that occur frequently can take a toll on your mental health and well-being.

Students can learn healthy coping strategies to control such test stress. The following are some recommendations to ease stress and anxiety whether it occurs frequently or before the most important exams.


Ask for help

Test stress is often overlooked as a serious mental health condition, but it may require professional intervention. For some students, extreme or chronic stress and anxiety are serious issues that can interfere with their quality of life and academic performance.

Some students may also turn to illegal drugs or alcohol to cope with test stress, which may require intervention from an inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation center. Professional help is also beneficial when other mental health issues are present.

One study published in Psychological Bulletin found that students who displayed higher levels of emotional intelligence scored better on standardized tests and earned higher grades regardless of age or personality. Emotional intelligence was defined as the ability to “understand and manage” emotions effectively.

More than 42,000 students residing in 27 countries were included in the study. Researchers stated that emotional intelligence may give students an advantage in the following areas:

  • Managing negative emotions

  • Controlling anxiety

  • Forming relationships with teachers, peers, family

  • Understanding emotional aspects of some subjects (history, language, etc.)

Students who struggle to understand and manage emotions may learn how to control test anxiety by working with experienced counselors to improve emotional intelligence.


Know your study preferences

Some people handle test stress by studying with a group of dedicated peers. While that may work for some students, that’s not great advice for everyone.

One person with test stress may find that working with other students is too distracting. Someone else may find it forces them to focus on studying for a period of time regardless of their stress or anxiety level. Still others may find that a mix of both group and individual study works best.

The only way to know what works for you is to expose yourself to a variety of study locations and scenarios. Try studying alone in a public place such as a library and then home alone. Join a study group at school or try a virtual study session online. With time, you’ll know what helps ease your stress and anxiety best.


Don’t underestimate the value of sleep

“Get a good night’s sleep!” Can you just hear one of your parents or grandparents saying that the night before a big test?

It turns out sleep is one thing all students need when preparing for exams or tests. When researchers from the University of Kansas studied the correlation between test anxiety, sleep, and academic failure, they found the following:

  • Students with greater test anxiety received lower grades than those with less anxiety.

  • Test anxiety predicted class failure or success even when controlling for past performance.

  • Test anxiety often interferes with sleep, and sleep disturbance heightens the impact of test stress and anxiety.

  • Students often use caffeine and other negative behaviors to compensate for lack of sleep, which further impacts their ability to perform academically.

When test stress is high, sleep deprivation makes matters worse. The best remedy is to stick to a dedicated sleep schedule whether a test is approaching or not. Get in the habit of sleeping well to better manage your anxiety and your grades.


Identify and address your fears

You know you feel overwhelmingly stressed or extremely anxious when it comes to taking tests, but why? Chances are high that you have some unfounded or exaggerated fears that might be stopping you from giving test preparation and performance your all.

One way to relieve your test stress is to turn those fears inside out. Take the power away from your biggest concerns. You do that by writing down your fears and then disputing them by using reality-based evidence.

Here are some suggestions from Brown University’s counseling and psychological services:

  • If you think you’re not ready or prepared for the test, improve your time management skills so that you’re better prepared.

  • Are you worried that you’ll fail the semester or year if you don’t pass the test? Talk to a teacher or advisor to see what might realistically happen if you do fail. Perhaps the consequences aren’t as harsh as you assumed.

  • Do you worry that everyone will think you’re not smart if you fail? Remind yourself that everyone fails at some point in life. Winners are people who get back up and try again. Also, remember you don’t need to talk about your academic performance.

When you feel it intensely, try writing about your test anxiety. Get down to your deepest fears, and then ask yourself why you have those concerns. What can you do to put your fear in perspective?


One final tip to manage test stress

Before you run off to analyze your sleep schedule or talk to your advisor about a potential failing grade, consider one last tip for overcoming extreme test anxiety or stress.

Change the way you think about tests!

That may seem simplistic, but it can help. You might be overwhelmed by tests because you think of them negatively. Maybe you consider them tests of your intelligence, and you don’t want to feel anything but smart. Perhaps you’ve failed in the past and see tests as additional ways to fail.

Instead, start thinking of tests as opportunities. They’re opportunities to see what you’ve learned on your academic journey. If you don’t receive a satisfactory grade, then you simply need to study a bit more in that unit or subject.

It’s not the end of the road or a make-or-break moment. It’s just an opportunity to go deeper into the learning process.


About the author: Pamela Zuber has been a writer and editor at Sunshine Behavioral Health since 2016. Her writing has appeared on several websites as well as in numerous reference books and databases. After earning a degree in English and communication from the University of Michigan and a history degree from Oakland University, she continues to learn and apply her newfound knowledge to her writing. She hopes her work can inform readers, help them find assistance, and eliminate stigmas about addiction and mental health conditions.



nursing.lsuhsc.edu - Strategies to Reduce Test Anxiety

sunshinebehavioralhealth.com - Recovery in a Quiet and Welcoming Environment

apa.org - Students Do Better in School When They Can Understand, Manage Emotions

news.ku.edu - Research Delves into Link Between Test Anxiety and Poor Sleep

brown.edu - Managing Test Anxiety



By Guest Blogger | June 1st 2022

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