It’s the morning of an important exam. You’re sitting at your desk, pencil in hand, ready to go.
Well… maybe not completely ready.
You didn’t get much sleep last night because your mind wouldn’t stop playing reels of everything that could go wrong with this test. You couldn’t eat much this morning because fight or flight was already kicking in, and you felt nauseous. As you sit at your desk and the teacher begins to pass out test papers, your heart begins to thud, and the material you thought you knew seems to vaporize from your memory.
The test anxiety struggle is real.
We all suffer from anxiety in one form or another; it’s a natural part of life. The trick is to distinguish rational fears from irrational ones, and implement strategies to cut unnecessary anxiety down to size.
Anxiety isn’t managed in just one way. There are many different strategies to try, and it will usually be a combination of different tactics that will successfully soothe the feelings. It’s also a matter of practice, experience, getting to know yourself and what works for you, and paying attention to how that evolves over time.
Here are some tried and true ideas to get you started:
1. Exercise and Meditation
These are effective tools to incorporate into your daily or weekly routine in order to reduce anxiety in general. You can also turn to whichever activity is available in the moment when you start to experience anxious feelings.
When exercising to reduce anxiety, it’s important that it be something you enjoy, otherwise you’ll feel anxious about not wanting to exercise on top of your other anxiety. That’s a feedback loop you don’t want to get caught in. So try various things out until you find what works for you. One of the most simple (and usually readily available) choices is fast-walking outdoors. This burns off nervous energy, produces endorphins, and draws your focus away from negative thoughts and into your body.
Meditation can also be practiced in a variety of ways. The idea behind this practice is to quiet and clear the mind. Anxiety usually gains its momentum from a spiral of upsetting thoughts that trigger emotional and physiological responses. So quieting and re-setting the storm of thoughts in our heads results in quieter emotions and a calmer body. YouTube and the App Store are both helpful places to look for guided meditations that you can try out while searching for the style that suits you best. (One of my favorite apps is called “Insight Timer”, and includes various guided meditations for different scenarios.)
2. Creating a Positive Environment
As test day approaches, put in a bit of planning to create a stress-free environment for yourself.
This means thinking about all of the elements that don’t actually have to do with what’s on the test, but that will affect how you feel. The food that you eat, the sleep that you get, the outfit that you wear, whether you get lost trying to find the test site. If you already suffer from test anxiety, you don’t need any added worries. Map a clear path that will help you to feel relaxed and prepared.
You know yourself best, so take steps ahead of time to create rituals that will put you in a good mindset on test day. Experiment with this ahead of time. If sugar makes you jittery, have eggs for breakfast instead of pop-tarts. If your Star Wars t-shirt makes you feel happy, wear it. If your dog puts you at ease, spend a few minutes playing with her before you head out the door.
On test day, set yourself up with all the elements of a really good day.
3. Growth Mindset
The attitude and beliefs that you cultivate going into a situation have a massive impact on how you experience that situation.
Imagine that I sit down to write this article with the attitude/belief that I have to write a flawless first draft, that if it’s not perfect then that means I’m not good at writing, and worst of all, if I’m not good at writing then I must not be intelligent. Whew! That mental mess is pretty much a guarantee that I will hate writing. There’s so much pressure!
A more productive way to think about this process would be to accept that part of becoming better at something is making mistakes, and mistakes are tools for learning. I will need to write many drafts with many mistakes in order to eventually produce a decent article. So it goes with anything, including test-taking.
Accept any test-taking experience as a learning experience, and remember that learning experiences are full of imperfections. We are constantly observing, reflecting, and calibrating in order to become more efficient at the things that are important to us. Expecting to avoid all mistakes is unrealistic and increases stress.
Let the perfection myth go, and focus instead on what you can learn as you navigate experiences.
4. Playing with Distraction
When panicky emotions start to build and you need to settle down in order to focus on your task, distraction can be a helpful technique. Distraction diffuses emotions by taking your focus off of them. This can take the shape of playing little games in your head, which forces your brain to think about something other than the anxiety.
For example, try going through the alphabet from A to Z, and naming an animal for each letter. Or a country. Or a human name. If you get to the end and still feel panicked, start over. Your mind can’t continue building a mountain of terrifying “what-if” test scenarios at the same time it’s trying to think of a mammal that begins with the letter “Q”. (Hint- google “quoll”; it’s a very cute but carnivorous marsupial.)
This can be a good strategy during the hours and even minutes leading up to the start of a stressful exam situation. Once you’ve done all that you can to prepare, get your mind to think about something else. Let your emotions settle.
5. Breathing Exercises
Last but not least, conscious breathing is probably one of the most simple and effective techniques for managing anxious feelings as they build. You can use it anytime, anywhere. The idea is to soothe your body’s fight or flight response (increased heart rate, shaking, shortness of breath) at the same time that you engage your mind with a calming focus.
Breath-based relaxation techniques abound, so it’s a matter of finding the ones that feel comfortable for you. Youtube and the App Store are great places to search for guided exercises. Yoga teachers can be a great resource if you want to have a conversation with a real person about breathing techniques.
Remember that whichever practices or exercises you go with, the key is to slow your body down. Relax. Chill out. From here, you have a platform from which to focus and execute the work at hand.
Again, learning to navigate the quirks and patterns of anxiety is a practice and a process that is unique for everyone. Be kind and patient with yourself as you tune into your own process and learn to ride those waves with courage.