Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

While I was in middle school, my anxiety was out of control — and my test anxiety was on another level. Even after studying for hours, I would convince myself that I wasn’t prepared — to the point where I couldn’t fall asleep, paralyzed by the belief that my teacher would throw a curveball at me, testing me on something I hadn’t thought to study. I realize, in retrospect, that a lot of times I had studied much more than was truly necessary — and pushing myself that hard was unhealthy.

I knew I had an issue with my test anxiety when even my teachers started telling me to stop coming to their office hours. Looking back, I realize that I was really craving reassurance from them — it soothed my anxiety, but only temporarily, until I realized something else I wasn’t familiar with could still appear on the test. When I stopped asking for validation and started trusting myself, perfectionism started to take less of a toll on me, because I didn’t allow it to. 

There are steps you can take to combat test anxiety, no matter how overwhelming it can sometimes feel. Here are four expert-backed tips that are simple yet effective:

Practice slow breathing 

When our body goes into “fight or flight mode,” we feel short of breath — a common result of stress. When that happens, the diaphragm’s range of motion is limited and the “lowest part of the lungs doesn’t get a full share of oxygenated air,” according to Harvard Medical School. Deep and slow breathing helps evoke the body’s relaxation response, calming you down and leveling out the inequality of oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. Feel this happening before a test? “Try two minutes of slow breathing — concentrate on exhaling slowly, like slowly blowing up a balloon, and your inhale will take care of itself,” Alice Boyes, Ph.D., author of The Anxiety Toolkit and The Healthy Mind Toolkit, tells Thrive. 

Make a game plan

Even if everything seems out of your control during a stressful test, you can take preventative steps beforehand. Having a game plan can help. For example, you can say to yourself, “If I don’t immediately know the answer, then I’ll approach it X way. Then you can mentally run through that game plan before the test, Boyes says. 

Work on your “self-talk”

Sometimes it actually helps to talk to yourself (even if it’s just in your head) in order to work through a stressful moment. “Emphasize that it’s okay to feel nervous about something important, that it’s hard to deal with uncertainty about what’s going to be on a test, and that you’ve worked hard to prepare,” Boyes says. Going through this process a few times in your head will soothe your nerves and rationalize your anxious thoughts and concerns. 

Try out positive coping statements

Coping statements can also help ease your anxiety surrounding test-taking. Choose a statement that you actually believe in, so that your mind is more likely to buy into it, suggests Barbara Markway, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of The Self-Confidence Workbook. “Although generalized affirmations such as ‘I’m a winner’ don’t tend to work to combat negative thinking, there are coping statements you can use to calm yourself down.” Markway suggests using an effective coping statement like, “I’ve studied for this test and it’s likely I’ll do well.” And then remind yourself, “If not, I can handle it.” Before you go into an exam, repeat these to yourself, like a mantra.

Use imagination to your advantage

Tapping into your creative mind can also help calm anxiety before — or even during — a test. “Bring up the mental image of someone who believes in you and trusts in your broad capabilities, and imagine what they’d say to you at this moment if they were there,” Boyes recommends. This will result in a boost of self-confidence, so that you are armed with reassurance that you’re able to tackle whatever is thrown at you. By doing this, you create a mini support system in the moment. 

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

9 Eye-Opening Truths About the College Mental Health Crisis

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

Student Mental Health: Behind the Scenes at Stanford


  • Zoe Young

    Thrive Global Campus Editor-at-Large from the University of Pennsylvania

    Zoe Young is a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania interested in pursuing a double major in Cinema & Media Studies and English with a minor in Journalistic Writing. On-campus, she is a Features Staff Writer for 34th Street Magazine — the arts and culture sector of UPenn's The Daily Pennsylvanian. This past summer, Zoe worked as Editorial Intern and helped with Entertainment projects at Thrive.