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Overcoming test anxiety

A young woman rests her head against a chalkboard. She is defeated by her test anxiety

Jason Keller
February 12, 2019

More than just butterflies in your stomach? Read on to find out how you can help tame your test anxiety.

Tests are a big deal. For at least 12 years of your life, they’ve been a major measure of your performance and worth in the classroom. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone then, that, according to the American Test Anxiety Association, 16-20 percent of Americans suffer from test anxiety. Test anxiety is more than just butterflies in your stomach — think shaking with anxiety over tests, going “blank” when the clock starts to tick and an overpowering fear of failure. Test anxiety can bring scores down by as much as 12 percent, and in a 2017 study done by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common mental health concern among college students.

Without facing the issues, test anxiety can become a major problem. Thankfully, even for students with anxiety, there are proven strategies for lowering test anxiety and improving performance.

The Mayo Clinic recommends the following:

The POMODORO Technique is a time-tested time-management technique and can be useful for studying. This online POMODORO timer can help you get started with a new study technique.

Learn how to study efficiently

By learning to study efficiently, you’ll help build confidence in your own abilities. A major cause of anxiety is a lack of belief in one’s self. If you’re a UNC student, you can take advantage of tutorial services and get one-on-one tutoring.

Learn relaxation techniques

Techniques such as deep breathing and meditation are recommended for slowing the mind and relaxing the body. Thankfully, in the age of the internet, a wealth of guided meditation resources can be found online. This one guided relaxation video by Mount Sinai Health is a good one.

Other relaxation and therapy techniques might advocate something called "mindfulness," a practice that involves becoming aware and present of one's current mental state. Helpful resources can be found on the American Psychological Association's website.

Though water intake needs vary by person, the Mayo Clinic generally recommends that for healthy adults, males drink 3.7 liters (about 125 oz) and females drink 2.7 liters (about 90 oz) of water a day.

Don’t forget to eat and drink

Your body needs fuel to function, especially if you have anxiety. A hungry stomach or dehydrated body is more prone to anxiety.

Get lots of sleep

Anxiety can cause sleeping problems, which, in turn, fuel anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. It’s a vicious cycle, so it’s important to get plenty of healthy, deep rest, especially before a test.

Sleep recommendations vary by person, but the CDC says most healthy teens and adults should get between seven to 10 hours of sleep a night.

Though inactivity is not the root cause of anxiety (and test anxiety), the Calm Clinic says that plenty of exercise can be a powerful part of your anxiety treatment routine.

Exercise often

Exercise can help burn off excess anxiety and produce endorphins. You probably don’t need to come to your test drenched in sweat, but some light exercise before an exam can do more than you realize.

Don’t ignore a learning disability if you have one

If you have dyslexia, ADHD or any other disability that hinders your ability to focus (and thus prompts anxiety), don’t ignore it! Seek out the disability accommodations you’re entitled to as a student. UNC students can obtain accommodations by visiting the Disability Resource Center website.

College-Bound Colorado has a two-part series on succeeding in college with ADHD. Read part one here.

Psychology Today has a great tool for finding a therapist near you. If you're a college student, you may also have free or inexpensive access to a campus counseling center.

Visit a counselor, therapist or psychologist (if need be)

Anxiety (and by extension, test anxiety) can be fueled by feelings of low self-worth, according to the ATAA. Visiting a mental healthcare specialist can be a great way to lower your test anxiety.

Learn more about what can trigger test anxiety


Test anxiety is unfair and often overpowering, but it isn’t hopeless. There’s a plethora of treatments available, whether it’s talking to a mental health professional or just sleeping well and studying appropriately. If you’re a UNC student, you can sign up for free counseling through the Counseling Center. If you’re not a UNC student, check in with your doctor or school; there may be affordable options available to you.


graduated from UNC in December 2018. He studied Journalism and Writing, with an emphasis in News and Multimedia. He has a passion for marketing, technology and writing, and works in marketing research and content writing. When he's not at work, he likes to listen to music, hike, read, study, ride his bike, write and spend time with friends.