7 Breathing Exercises to Manage Test Anxiety

by Lisa Bertholdt, Program Development Intern

You sit down to start a practice test, and your heartbeat suddenly seems really fast and loud. Your hands get sweaty, and your body temperature starts to rise.  As you progress through the questions, you find your thoughts racing and you realize that you aren’t fully concentrating on the questions in front of you.

Has this ever happened to you? Welcome to the world of test anxiety. Researchers define test anxiety as “the reaction to stimuli that is associated with an individual’s experience of testing or evaluating situations.”1

Whether your symptoms are mild or severe, many of us can relate to the physiological and psychological aspects of test anxiety – and the negative effect on your performance.

Breathing exercises can be a quick, portable, and effective way to manage anxiety when you’re in a testing situation. We’ve gathered a collection of seven different breathing exercises that you could use during practice or during the exam itself:

1. The “4-7-8” technique: In this technique, you breathe in for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and then exhale for 8 seconds. This technique has been recommended by many doctors because it “demands that your focus be on your breathing and nothing else” . Instead of focusing on your anxiety, the 4-7-8 method allows you to clear your mind and calm your brain.

2. The Muscle Tension technique: Although we are often unaware of it, our muscles tense up all the time. When we experience test anxiety, this tension goes way beyond the normal level. This exercise aims to address that tension. With every breath you take, as you inhale, tense up every muscle in your body, and as you exhale, relax them all. Continue to do this for about 10-15 breaths until you feel your muscles relaxing by themselves. This method allows you to release the stress-induced physical tension that has built up inside your body.

3. The Belly Breathing exercise: Begin by sitting or laying down comfortably. Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. Take a deep breath in for 4 counts, and pay attention to the feeling of your belly inflating. Hold this breath for 1 count, then slowly exhale for 5 counts, letting the belly deflate again. Repeat several times and notice a sense of calm and increased focus.

4. The Breath Counting method: Pay attention to your breathing, and every time you exhale, count it as 1. Keep counting your breaths, but do not go over the number 5. Once you hit 5 breaths, start over from 1 again.  Since you have to focus on the number of breaths you are taking, your brain cannot drift to other things that might be worrying you. If your mind does drift, do not blame yourself for getting distracted, but rather congratulate yourself for catching the drift, and begin focusing on your breath again until you feel calmer.

5. The Balloon Technique: This method may be especially effective if you prefer visuals to counting. Imagine a balloon every time you breathe in and out. The bigger and longer your in-breath, the larger your balloon inflates. Then, imagine the balloon completely deflating when you breathe out. This image of a balloon can distract your mind from thinking of the core thing that is making you anxious at the time.

6. Focus On Your Breathing method: it’s as simple as that. There is no need to count the number of breaths your take, but rather just notice your patterns of breath. How much air do you take in consistently? Do you take long, deep breaths or short, rapid ones? Being conscious and aware of the air you are inhaling and exhaling will allow you to feel more calm before and during the test you are taking.

7.   The Test Mode technique: The team at The Economist proposes a breathing exercise especially for the GMAT.  First, take a deep break after you read each question. Then, take a deep breath each time you submit an answer. Finally, take one more deep breath whenever you get stuck. Taking this many deep breaths throughout a test can clear your mind and help you be able to focus more intently.

A key to maximizing the benefits of these breathing exercises is to exhale longer than you inhale.

Different breathing techniques are suitable for different types of people, so it’s important to try out different methods in order to find the one that best suits you. When it comes to managing anxiety during exams, your breath can be a powerful tool!


  1. Ping, L. T., Subramaniam, K., & Krishnaswamy, S. (2008). “Test anxiety: state, trait and relationship with exam satisfaction.” The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences : MJMS, 15(2), 18-23.
  2. White, Madison. “Breathing Exercises for Test-Taking,” Wichita State University, uloop, https://www.uloop.com/news/view.php/205426/6-Breathing-Exercises-For-Test-Taking
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