Overcome Test Anxiety

The nervous energy that you feel during an exam can be useful: it activates you and focuses you on the task at hand. When this energy increases beyond a certain threshold (which will be different for different people), you experience anxiety. Test Anxiety is emotionally and cognitively disruptive - it has the potential to hurt your performance by not allowing you to completely show what you know on an exam. Certainly, some students may feel very anxious in an exam because they objectively recognize that they are not adequately prepared. Anxiety that stems from poor preparation should not be confused with test anxiety. The suggestions that follow assume good study skills, note taking, time management, etc. and are focused instead on the management of unreasonable anxiety that can interfere with test performance.

Broadly speaking, anxiety is made up of two components:

1) A physical experience comprising some or all of these sensations: increased heart rate, sweating, shallow breathing, muscle tightness, pit in the stomach, narrowed field of vision, heightened sensory awareness, rushing adrenaline, trembling, and many other uncomfortable feelings.

2) A cognitive narrowing characterized by simplistic, illogical thinking.

The most effective way to reduce test anxiety is to develop skills for combating those two components - both the immediate, disruptive physical sensations of anxiety and the narrowed thinking that is both a result of high anxiety and a circular cause of it.

The Physical
A well-researched and time-honored method for fighting off anxious physical sensations is to learn a relaxation technique and then apply the calming skill in real time to counteract anxiety. There are two major kinds of relaxation techniques: progressive muscle relaxation and passive relaxation. Use the links below to download recorded (.mp3) guides for each of the relaxation types, pick the one that appeals most to you, and begin practicing twice a day. Your goal will be to develop the ability to relax yourself on your own in a matter of 1-2 minutes using a shortened method that picks out the key parts of the relaxation procedure with the most power to relax you. Then, use your new skill during an exam to keep your physical anxiety below the disruptive threshold.

The Cognitive
The key to coping with the cognitive component of test anxiety is to change the way you think, in the moment, about a test situation. An important principle here is the fact that the way in which we interpret events in our lives has a direct effect on the emotions we have about them. One can even go so far as to say that we cannot have an emotion without first having an interpretive or appraising thought about the event in question. With this in mind, it would make sense to take a hard look at how you interpret test situations and at the things you say to yourself while taking a test. If you experience significant test anxiety then you are probably using one of the following distorted forms of thinking that have been found to be a direct cause of high anxiety. Use this list to identify your typical distortions and then dedicate yourself to counteracting this thinking by using the "Calming Self-Dialogue" suggestions as often as necessary during an exam.

1) Panicky Self Talk: often referred to as "Oh Godisms" because so many of these statements begin with "Oh God." Examples:
"Oh God, there isn't enough time. There's still so much I don't know!"
"Oh God, now I'm starting to get nervous!"
"Oh no, how can they be done so soon?"
"Aahh, I'm supposed to be focusing, but I can't even read the words because I'm so freaked out!"

Calming Self-Dialogue: "Take a moment to relax - you can deal with the nervousness."

2) "Why?" Questions:
"Why can't I concentrate?"
"Why am I even in grad school?"
"Why won't these concepts stick in my head?"

Calming Self-Dialogue: "Who knows why - it just goes that way" or "Good question - later, when I have some time, I'll try to figure that out."

3) "What if?" Questions:
"What if I blank out when I get the exam?"
"What if my final exam grade turns out as bad as my mid-term grade?"
"What if it turns out that I don't even belong in this program?"

Calming Self-Dialogue: Put "So what if" in front of the question. Or: "Is thinking about that going to help me right now?" Or: Think through how you could respond if the dreaded situation were to actually happen.

4) Negative and Critical Self-Statements:
"I'm so stupid, I'm inept, I don't know what I'm doing here."
"I shouldn't be so slow."
"I shouldn't be so sloppy."
"No one respects me."
"I always screw up my chances to do well."
"I can't compete with all these smart people."

Calming Self-Dialogue: "There I go again, putting myself down and predicting the worst - I've got plenty of strengths and I don't need to be the smartest person here to succeed!"

5) Absolutist Thinking: Either live up to a standard or you are "BAD". Examples:
"I have to prove myself to my fellow students."
"I ought to know what's going on."
"I should be one of the best students in class."
"My family has supported me all these years and I can't let them down."
"I can't afford to screw this up."
"I have to pass, there's no two ways about it."

Calming Self-Dialogue: "I might WANT that, but do I NEED that?" Or: "Isn't everybody entitled to be flawed or human sometimes?" Or: "Where did I get these rules for myself?"

We highly recommend the following additional resources:

Progressive Muscle Relaxation*  and Passive Relaxation*
*(right click/'save link as' to download either mp3)
Use these relaxation recordings to help combat the physical component of anxiety.

Writing about worries eases anxiety and improves test performance
Students can reduce test anxiety and improve performance by writing about their worries immediately before the exam begins, according to this University of Chicago study published in the journal Science.

Anxiety Thought Record
Use this form (along with these instructions) to track your anxiety and practice counteracting distorted thinking.