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Overcome Exam and Test Nerves

Mark Tyrrell
Article by Mark Tyrrell
Therapist trainer of 25 years
Co-founder of Hypnosis Downloads

5 calming techniques to help you relax and focus during your test

Once, a beautiful princess sat by an ornate pool in her palace grounds. As she peered down, admiring her beautiful reflection in the surface of the clear pool, her priceless crown suddenly slipped from her head and into the waters with a splash.

She screamed for her attendants to retrieve her precious crown and they leapt into the waters, frantically searching, scrabbling around, a flurry of activity. But all this effort merely brought up mud and debris from the bottom of the pool, making it even harder to find the missing crown...

Eventually an old storyteller arrived on the scene. He began to tell such a riveting tale of times gone past that, despite themselves, all the princess's aides stopped searching and relaxed. Even the princess momentarily forgot about the missing crown and listened to the man's sweet words. By the time he'd finished telling his tale, not only had everyone calmed down, but the mud from the pool had settled and the waters were again clear.

At that point, the storyteller reached down into the water and retrieved the princess's crown, which could now clearly be seen.

Test nerves 'muddy the water' of the mind just when it needs clarity.

How test nerves rained on Clara's parade

"I recall it was raining the morning of my test paper. I've been scared going into exams before, but this felt much worse. When I got in the test room, my mind just went blank!"

Eighteen-year-old Clara was describing an exam she'd taken months before and was now due to retake. Minds actually don't just "go blank". To lose clarity, the water needs to be muddied. How does this happen just when we need clarity?

"Your mind went blank. What happened, Clara, just before your mind went blank?"

"Well, I guess I was having a panic attack in the test itself. I started breathing hard, my palms were sweating. I kept thinking: 'This test is really important!'"

The more emotional we become, the more 'stupid' we become (1). Fear stops us thinking because it wants us to move - to run or to fight. Too much thinking in a real emergency might slow down action. The trouble is that sitting and taking a test isn't actually a life or death situation (although it felt like it to Clara at the time).

'Un-blanking' for test nerves

So emotion can make the mind seem to go blank or - to use the princess crown metaphor - "muddy the waters". But the mind will only go blank after we've started becoming way too emotional. If we don't become tense to start with - or learn to switch off anxiety once it's started - then the mind will happily 'un-blank' itself.

Clara thinks she answered only about 20% of the questions of her test paper. "I'm so mad with myself because this was stuff I knew!"

Here are some of the things we did, presented as tips to help you if test nerves ever "muddy your waters" during exams.

1) Study calm before your test

Clara had studied hard (and if you want help with study, see: 7 Savvy Study Techniques to Keep You Learning). She did well when her mom tested her at home. She had prepared for her exam - only she hadn' least, not emotionally.

If I have something coming up that I'm worried about or not looking forward to, I've learned to prepare - not just what I'm going to say or do in this upcoming event, but also how I'm going to feel. For people who suffer test nerves, emotional preparation really has to be part of their overall test preparation. So decide exactly how you want to feel during the test, rather than focussing on how you don't want to be.

Even this idea alone gave Clara a sense of optimism and power. So how do we do this?

2) Positive mental rehearsal

Vividly imagining yourself doing something calmly and confidently before you do it massively increases the likelihood of you being calm and confident in the situation when it happens for real. So:

  • Take time, when you feel relaxed, to close your eyes.
  • As you breathe nice and evenly, extending your out-breath, begin to imagine watching yourself going to your test, perhaps driving and/or walking.
  • Now as your body continues to rest deeper, just observe yourself going into the test room to sit your exam, looking so calm and focussed.
  • Watch yourself, absolutely focussed and relaxed, completing the whole test; almost like seeing yourself fast-forwarding through time.
  • When you've done this, just allow yourself a few moments to enjoy feeling so relaxed.
  • Open your eyes.

3) Don't pin everything on this one test

Clara had pinned everything on doing well in her particular test. When she failed, she felt like it was the "end of the world." Yet as I sit here writing, terrible reports are coming in of the desperation, death toll, destruction, and suffering in the wake of the Haitian earthquake. However important something seems to you, remember it is not everything. Even if you don't do well, you'll survive and go on to achieve in the future.

This idea transcends just the taking of tests, of course.

4) Take control of the test nerves

Whether you're taking an academic exam or even a physical test of some kind, we all know nerves can get in the way. As you'll read in How to Pass Your Driving Test, I felt so nervous during my first driving test way back when that a little old lady was endangered. (I'm a good driver now. Honest.)

If you do feel a little nervous before or in the test, take control.

First, grade the anxiety; perhaps 10 being the most nervous and 1 being the most relaxed (and you really don't want to be a 1 during your test). Ask yourself: What number of nervousness am I on at the moment? It might be, say, a 7 - a bit too high for a test. As you slow your breathing and focus on breathing out a little longer than you breathe in, you'll notice your body starting to relax (the body always relaxes when you extend your out-breath). Now 'watch' in your mind as that 7 (or whatever the starting number) starts to drift down to a 6, then a 5, 4, and down to a 3, then 2.

Any time you feel a little too tense in the test, just repeat this process (but I bet you won't need to : ) ).

5) Overcome test nerves by expecting the best

Relax; you will relax. Test nerves, like any anxiety, can feel overwhelming; but nerves can be conquered so much more easily than people think (trust me; I've had test nerves in the past, too).

Clara went from strength to strength and, in an email to me months later, said that it had rained on the day of her retake test too - but as far as she was concerned, the "sun was shining brightly." She also felt that test nerves had been a kind of test in themselves and we'd managed to pass that particular test with flying colours.

Proper preparation is key to calming test nerves, because leaving it until the day of the test is too late (just like studying!). Use these five tips to get your nerves calmed down and your brain working at its best for you.


  1. Daniel Goleman, in his groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, describes this as "emotional hijacking."
Published by Mark Tyrrell - in Fears and Phobias