7 min read

Testing Anxiety: Mindset Shifts and Practical Tips

Clammy hands. Churning gut. Anxious breathing. “1…2…3…4….hold...2…3…4…” says Natosha as she attempts to force her focus back to the task at hand. Natosha is seated at the kitchen table, a bright computer screen staring back at her. She has spent weeks preparing for this exact moment. This exam is the last requirement for the Psychology in Education course she needs to complete the program, which will allow her to license and graduate.

From Natosha’s earliest memories, she has dreamed of the day that she’d step into a classroom and call it her own. Alongside that dream, comes the memories of debilitating test anxiety that has delayed her academic progress. Despite the fact that Natosha has put in the hours of study time, group study sessions, one-on-one appointments with her professor to prepare for this exam, she can’t seem to shake the effects of the testing anxiety that she knew would surely come. 

According to a 2020 study administered by the National Library of Medicine, 25-40% of higher education students in the United States experience testing anxiety. How many of those students lack the proper tools and resources to combat the anxiety that comes with assessment? Presumably, many of these students began experiencing testing anxiety long before they began their post-secondary educational careers. For example, Natosha recalls first experiencing testing anxiety as a 7 year old. She vividly remembers sitting in Mr. O’Reilly’s second grade classroom preparing for the weekly Mad Minute Math Facts Quiz. For a pre-pubescent, typically extroverted girl, a racing heart, trembling, and profuse sweating was uncharacteristic. In the coming years, as Natosha experienced these same pre-exam symptoms, most adults diagnosed her with the flu or some other seasonal illness and sent her home.

Even in 1994, little was known about test-anxiety and perhaps even less was known about how to support students through it. Fortunately for Natosha, she had been given opportunities to work with a variety of psychological specialists during her collegiate years as a student athlete. Coaches, teachers, and therapists created a support team for Natosha that allowed her to explore her anxiety and discover practices that more frequently than not, allowed her to perform both academically and athletically. Ultimately, Natosha devised a plan consisting of 4 steps that increased the likelihood of success during an exam.


Creating a study plan, gathering study materials (including study partners), and understanding the exam formatting, are all elements that will help gather the knowledge needed to perform well during an assessment. Allowing for a longer range of study time (over days or weeks) will better allow the brain to process and retain information learned. Cramming is thought to be a time-saving study technique, but there is a short shelf life for the information gained during a “cram sesh”. 

Often it is assumed that the test preparation process includes studying and studying alone. While study is an essential component of test preparation, the physical elements in one’s preparation repertoire can in fact make the study session more effective. Elements such as a healthy diet and consistent sleep patterns are proven to allow the brain and body to function more consistently, especially when compared to the spikes and crashes that are caused by diets high in sugar, caffeine, and processed foods. It likely goes without saying, but when the body is well-rested, the brain has time to process and consolidate information allowing an individual to feel refreshed and alert when awake. 

Though perhaps cliche, the age-old quote from Benjamin Franklin stands true “by failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Certainly, the opposite is also accurate. When we plan, we plan to succeed.


Anyone who has ever experienced anxiety in any fashion, knows that convincing the body (and mind) to relax is notably easier said than done. Breathing techniques can be helpful for managing testing anxiety by helping to calm the body's nervous system and promote relaxation. Here are a few techniques you can try:

  1. Diaphragmatic breathing: Also known as belly breathing or deep breathing. This technique involves pulling deep breaths from the diaphragm. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position, placing one hand on the belly, and inhale slowly through the nose. Feel the belly expand, pushing against your hand with each deep inhaled breath. Exhale slowly through the mouth, letting the belly fall back to a relaxed position. Repeat the process until calm is achieved. 
  2. Box breathing: This technique involved breathing in a pattern of four counts in, four hold, four counts out, and four counts hold. To practice box breathing, sit or stand in a comfortable position and begin the four count inhale, holding the breath for four counts, exhaling for four counts, and holding again. This pattern should be repeated several times. 
  3. Progressive muscle relaxation: This technique begins in the lower extremities of the body by tightening and then relaxing the muscles in the toes and feet before working upward to the next muscle group (ankles, quads, hamstrings, etc.) As with previous techniques, find a comfortable sitting or lying down position. Begin by tensing the muscles in the feet for a few seconds before releasing the tension and allow the same muscles to relax for a few seconds before moving on. Repeat this process for each muscle group.
  4. Mindful breathing: This technique involves focusing your attention on your breath and observing the sensation of each inhale and exhale. To practice mindful breathing, sit or stand in a comfortable position and focus your attention on your breath. If your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your breath.

Experiment with these techniques and find what works best for you. Practicing these breathing techniques regularly can help you feel more calm and centered during testing situations.

Another very important relaxation technique is to take frequent breaks. Allowing the mind to focus on something other than the study materials for even a few minutes will increase study stamina.


There is potential overlap between relaxation techniques and visualization. Often during breathing exercises, visualization is more easily achieved as the mind is in a calmer, more neutral state. Mentally simulating the testing experience can help the test taker be better prepared. Considering exploring the testing environment prior to the exam. Observe the testing surfaces (desk, table, chairs), the room temperature, lighting, and other potential distractions. When an environment is familiar, the level of comfort increases.  

Visualize the outcome. Imagine the feelings of pride and satisfaction post-exam, knowing that you performed well. This type of visualization can be motivating.


Perhaps the most efficacious step is a positive attitude. By cultivating a positive attitude, you can approach assessment opportunities with self confidence. Believing in your own abilities reduces doubt and allows you to approach an exam with a calm and optimistic mindset. Like anything worth attaining, a positive attitude takes practice. Positive self-talk drills may allow the test taker to reset during an anxiety filled situation. Some examples of positive self-talk include: 

  • “I am well-prepared for this exam.”
  • “I have studied hard and I am ready to do my best.”
  • “I am capable of answering these questions” 
  • “I am calm and focused.” 
  • “I trust my abilities and knowledge”

Let’s get back to Natosha. She finishes the box breathing technique, sits back in her chair and closes her eyes. As she visualizes the study materials in her mind, she can feel her heartbeat return to a normal, even calm pace. “I’ve studied hard for this exam and I CAN do this”, Natosha says internally. She opens her eyes, sits up straight and begins the exam. She is confident that her success on this exam will create a ripple effect, carrying her to the actualizing of her professional dreams. 

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