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Stressed Out Over Studying . . . Tests?

frog laying on its back with the word relax above it



The Problem

How Does All This Affect Grades?

The Key Strategy

Don't I Need to Get Psyched Up to Do Well?

Additional Help


"I need to get myself psyched up to get things done. That's how I motivate myself!"

This is what many students believe. But psyching yourself up actually interferes with studying and with doing well on tests.

Read on to understand

  • how you learned to get too tense many times each day,
  • how that affects your grades, and
  • what you can do about it.




You learned to be more tense than you need to be. That probably started early, perhaps in the second or third grade. You had a teacher who wanted to teach you how to take tests. So she gave you some practice. She announced on Monday that you would have a test on Friday. Then she reviewed a little with the class each day. You wanted to do well on the test for your teacher, for your parents, and for yourself. So when the day of the test came you got just a little "uptight" and anxious. But, of course, you passed it.

Your teacher gave another test. Again, you wanted to do well, so you got "psyched up" for the test, took it, and passed it.

What were you learning about taking tests? You were learning that it is best to get psyched up, tense, and a little anxious to pass tests. In Junior high and high school you got better at becoming a little anxious or tense whenever you had to perform. Perhaps it was taking tests, giving speeches, speaking up in class, or being in a play or musical group. And in college you got so good that now you're a real pro at tensing yourself, at becoming tenser than you need to be to succeed in whatever you do.

People who research these things estimate that we react with more tension than we need 50 to 200 times a day!

You stop at the library to get a reference for a paper that's coming due and find the book is checked out. You react.... You see someone who reminds you of a meeting tonight. You had forgotten about it and had planned to study for a test.... You pick the shortest check-out line at the Union Bookstore and then three people in front of you leisurely write checks for small purchases. . . In the lecture, your mind wanders off until you hear the professor say, "Remember that. It will be on the next test!" So it goes.... In each situation, your body reacts with more tension than necessary.

Your imagination also contributes. Recall when you took a speech course and just thought about or imagined yourself up in front of the class with all those faces looking up at you. You reacted before you ever got to class!



You overreact so many times a day in these little ways that your body does not have time to return to a more natural and stress-free level. You remain activated and tense. This, in turn, affects you in several ways:

You'll have more difficulty concentrating on studying.You're more aroused mentally (note, not more alert, just more aroused). Your thoughts may jump around, and you'll have trouble keeping focused on the text in front of you. Everything in the room your eyes fall upon will distract you. Or, you may find yourself having read several pages and not remembering anything on the last two.

You'll feel "rattled" and make "dumb" mistakes (like adding incorrectly or forgetting obvious facts). In some cases, you might "clutch and forget everything until the test is over. Then you can think of the answers, but it's too late!

You'll feel excessive fatigue. Being unnecessarily tense is like driving a car with its brakes partly on. The car runs out of gas sooner and the brakes wear out sooner. Same thing with our bodies -- we're just plain pooped at the end of the day, a time when we often need to be alert for studying.

Or, you'll be unable to sleep.When you hop into bed to go to sleep, your mind "turns on" and you lie there wide awake. Reacting with just a little more tension than necessary all day long builds, and it's hard for some people to turn it off at night.



It may sound crazy or simple. But here's what you do:

Begin every class, every study session and every test by psyching yourself Down!

Before the instructor begins to lecture in your class, get your paper and pens out, ready to take notes. Then take a couple of minutes to relax yourself by using some of the brief strategies described below. Do that before every class. Also, do the same thing each time you sit down to study -- get your books and paper out, sit back, and practice relaxing for two, three, five minutes.


  • Briefly tense your entire body by tensing and holding muscles.
  • Raise your toes and hold while tensing your legs, tense your buttocks, clench your fists.
  • Take a deep breath and hold it while clenching your teeth and closing your eyes tight.
  • Hold them all tense for a few seconds. Then, let go all at once and enjoy that letting go feeling.

When you first do this, you'll notice that the old habits take over just as soon as the instructor begins lecturing -- you grip your pen a little more tightly than necessary, shoulders tense up a little, etc. Practice seeing how long you can make the more relaxed state last. A few seconds at first is typical. Over days you will begin to make it last a minute, then several minutes.


  • With your eyes closed, shift your attention to the tip of your nose.
  • As you breathe in, become aware of the air coming into your nostrils.
  • As you breathe out, be aware of the sensations of the air passing back out.
  • Notice that the air coming in tends to be cooler, and the air breathed out is warmer.
  • Cool air in, warm air out.

Focusing on a physiological process (air in and out) can help calm our mental activity.
It helps you let go of thoughts that stress you.

The more you practice relaxing the more you'll be able to be relaxed while studying, taking tests, and nearly anything else. As you begin to be more relaxed while learning, you'll notice that you can concentrate just as well, or better, and still retain information. Then it will not be as scary to practice relaxing before taking a test.


  • While seated, raise your shoulders up, back, and down; up. back, and down. Roll your shoulders this way three or four times. Then, slowly twist in your seat. Look over your right shoulder and twist your body so you feel some stretch in the lower back. Do your twisting as you exhale. Breathe in. Then twist to your left and feel the good stretch in your lower back as you exhale.
  • We tend to get tense in our upper and lower back when we sit for a long time, usually bent over a desk. Rolling shoulders and twisting relieve that extra tension.
  • The quickest way to learn any new skill is to practice it over and over. And learning to be more relaxed while studying and taking tests is learning a new skill. So get in the habit of beginning anything academic by psyching yourself down.


  • Take a deep breath.
  • As you slowly let it out, let your jaw and shoulders relax, and relax the grip on your pen.
  • Also getting stressed during tests frequently results from not having learned material well enough to recall it rapidly under the stress of tests. That is, when you review for a test, you understand everything. Yet you still do poorly on the test.
  • You need to learn the material well enough to recall it rapidly under the stress of the test. And just understanding it isn't enough. So supplement the strategies presented in this paper with those described in the one titled "I Know the Material but When I Take the Test I Go Blank!"


When you sit for long periods of time, gravity tends to draw your blood into the lower parts of your body so less oxygen is fed to your brain.

To get the blood carrying more oxygen to your brain, get up and walk around for 30 seconds or so. The calves of your legs act as pumps and get the blood flowing again.

While walking, roll your shoulders and stretch other parts of your body.



There is considerable evidence that says you can perform better if you are more relaxed, less stressed, and able to take tests at a "lower level of arousal." You can't be so relaxed that you're spacey -- you need some stress to motivate you. But you probably need much less than you've become accustomed to.

Research shows that persons who are less tense can concentrate better, learn new information more efficiently, and remember more. For example, give a group of college students one test that measures how fast they read and how much they remember and another test that measures their intelligence. Then teach part of them how to be more relaxed while studying and taking tests. Take several weeks so they learn to relax well. Retest all the students. The ones who learned to be less tense will read significantly faster. Remember significantly more, and show increases in intelligence scores when compared with the others.

If you learn how to go to a test a few minutes early and prepare yourself by relaxing your body and clearing your mind, you probably will do better on the test than if you were all psyched up. This also applies to other situations in which you get too tense--speaking, writing, learning new skills, performing old skills; all are performed more efficiently if you are less stressed.


  • Take a moment right now to create, in your mind, a special place for relaxing. It could be some special place you've known in the past or one that exists only in your mind. (I have one down an escalator into a room decorated with relaxing furniture and favorite stereo music.) Practice going to your place for a few seconds or minutes and enjoy the relaxation. Practice a lot so you can go there mentally to relax before a test begins.

It's difficult for many students to think about relaxing a lot before taking tests. And, it takes practice to do it. But those who take the time to learn to be more relaxed and try their newly found skills find themselves rewarded by being better students.

Practice Patience!

You've spent several years learning how to get too tense while taking lecture notes, studying, and taking tests. So be patient with yourself while you are learning these more relaxed behaviors. It does take a little time. But do the brief psyching down before every class and study session. The more you practice, the more skilled you'll become at learning to stay more relaxed and mentally alert.



Some students find they need to get more intensive relaxation training so they can relax more in those brief periods before class and studying. If you are one of them, there are six relaxation tapes, each 20 minutes long, on reserve in the Audio Visual section of the library. You may use them in the library to learn some more skills for relaxing more deeply.

There are also many books on relaxation and on stress management in the library and many book stores. Most of these have a variety of relaxation strategies. Try several and see what works best for you.

Calming music can help when studying at home. But most profs don't permit music in class so you'll also need to learn strategies for relaxing without music.

At Kansas State University, University Counseling Services also has counselors who can help you learn to be more relaxed while studying and taking tests.

See also our other information on stress topics: Topics.

For some other possible resources, see Links.

Originally prepared in 1989 by David G. Danskin, Ph.D.; updated and modified in 1997 for the Internet by Dorinda J. Lambert, Ph.D.

Help Yourself is created by Counseling Services
© 1989, 1997 Kansas State University