Handling Test Anxiety (Part 1)

Study Tip #18


  • Influences on feelings of worry and safety
  • 8 methods to help you feel safe in a test
  • More topics in Part 2. See #19.

Influences on feelings of worry and safety
One key to lowering test anxiety is to lower your belief that you will be seriously harmed. Stress is the anticipation of harm, says psychologist Richard Lazarus. So when we expect to be hurt, damaged, injured, we are expecting harm and we feel stress, one sign of which is feeling anxious. When taking a test, we sometimes know that we might do poorly, which can mean harm, and we often feel anxious. We can help ourselves by thinking thoughts to lessen our belief that we will be harmed.

Thoughts That Help Us Feel Safe
Since you will be using thinking methods to help your mind feel safe, you will need to assess if you can think on command. Please think the following thought and notice if you can do it. Think of a red house with a green roof. Now think of three parts of the house I didn't mention. Now think about counting from 1 to 10 slowly and return to thoughts of the house and its parts. Well, can you do it?  If you can, the thinking methods may work for you.

There is a psychological principle that you will use: If you think of something, your cooperative mind will automatically start to bring to mind other bits of knowledge, feelings, and motives that you have linked in the past to that first thought. You will handle test anxiety by choosing to think of things that lead to knowledge of safety and safe feelings.

1. Think that the amount of harm is low.
Have you noticed that when you think that very bad things will happen if you do poorly on a test, your anxiety rises? If you think that the amount of harm is high and intense and that you expect severe damage and pain, you will worry more. By contrast, when you think that the harm will be a small amount of damage to you, you will worry less.  So try these thoughts.

  • Think realistically first about what is the worst thing that can happen on this test. Then think second about the days and weeks and months coming after that worst thing. (It is important to project ahead to the time well after the test.) Think: "I choose to accept it, if I have to." Then think third about what you can do to improve on that worst outcome. (This technique is so powerful that Dale Carnegie, author of How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, rated it as one of the top three methods.)
  • "I can take it." Think that, yes, it will hurt to do poorly on a test and you won't like it, but that you are strong enough to endure it.
  • "I've suffered worse." Think of the past things you have endured, and perhaps like most of us you have endured far worse things and survived, perhaps triumphed. Use that knowledge to feel safe. Use your visual memory to "see" the past thing as big like a mountain and your current test as a little hill. Use feelings to feel the past thing as big and the current test as small.
  • If you can think these thoughts, you will help convince your mind that the amount of harm is low enough that you can feel safe. (Remember to prepare and practice these thoughts for days in advance of a test so that you can easily recall them in the middle of a test.)

2. Think that even if a test failure could be harmful, you can prevent it because you have a lot of abilities, a lot of things you can do.
Perhaps in the past you have noticed that when you think that you are stupid and incompetent, unable to learn the material, unable to remember what you studied, then you believe you are helpless and have no way to fight the damage that comes from doing poorly on a test. Instant test anxiety! In contrast, when you think about what you do know and about the abilities you do have, you will start to have safe feelings. We all have some strengths and weaknesses; the glass is half full and half empty. Worriers think of all they don't know; calm people think about what they do know.

Think of the topics you have studied and know. Think of your general abilities. Think about your knowledge of how to handle test anxiety.

3. Think that even if a test failure could be harmful, you can prevent it because you have helpers, friends, and forces on your side.
The prior suggestion was about your ability; this one is about resources outside of you. Think about such topics as those below. Think about other friends and helpers and conditions that you know may work for you.

  • "I have plenty of time."
  • "The teacher is fair."
  • "People often have second chances."
  • "When I study, I know that the normal laws of learning will help me learn."
  • "Even if I miss a few questions, I can still pass."

Investigate the backups available to you. You'd be amazed at how students who do poorly in tests, courses and programs, find ways to come back by help within the system. Use this knowledge of backups to help you feel safe.

4. Think about other things than the harm.
Even if you could be hurt by poor performance on a test, you don't have to think about it. You can think about other things. Many people deliberately turn their mind to other things and that weakens the strength of the worry.

  • During the period before a test, when you notice yourself thinking about failing, turn your mind to pleasant experiences. It is normal for your unconscious mind to keep sending thoughts of worry to your mind. Just keep turning to the other experience.
  • During the test, when you notice yourself distracted and worrying, pull your mind gently back towards the question you are working on. Do not criticize yourself for worrying; just keep your mind wordless as you turn your attention back to the question. Reason: If you criticize yourself, your obedient mind will associate to additional thoughts about how bad you are and return those memories to consciousness. Many people say something like, "Stupid idiot. I can't even pay attention."  Your mind then associates to your past memories of doing stupid things and recalls how those bad times felt. That makes you feel bad both for the present and for the past! Who wants that?

5. Think that the harm is far away in the future.
When we know that trouble is coming but that it is far in the future, we feel safer than when we think trouble is immediate and near. So you can make mental images of the test as far away, so far that it seems blurry and unreal. When your worried mind makes it seem near and large and bright, make your visual imagery send it far away and small and dim. Say such distancing words as: "It's not until tomorrow."  Combine the practice of not thinking about tomorrow with the sense that the future is distance and you'll lower worry. (This is another of Dale Carnegie's top three methods: "Live in day-tight compartments.")

6. Think that the events signaling possible trouble are merely normal expected trouble, nothing unusual.
It is a principle regarding emotions that when we define events as surprises, interruptions, and obstacles, we feel intense emotions.  In contrast, if we define events as just normal expected events, we take a relaxed attitude towards them. When bad things happen while you take a test, keep thinking, "That's normal. It's expected.  It's common."

  • "I expected some difficult questions."
  • "Some people are already done, but I expected I'd go slowly."
  • "Yes, I'm stuck on this problem now, but some problems need several tries."

7. Think that you have such important goals that you are willing anyway to expose yourself to the dangers of taking tests.
When people see a loved one in danger, they often expose themselves to things they are intensely afraid. I've seen a woman who is intensely afraid of snakes rescue her curious cat who was walking too close to an 8-foot snake. I've read about parents rescuing their kids from oncoming cars. And you can use your strong goals for learning material and getting an education to help you face tests. You must remember those goals and think about them and think about why they are worthwhile. You will have both self-oriented goals (making money and a name for yourself) and generous loving goals (providing for loved ones and using your skills to help others live better lives).

8. Avoid other anxious people before a test so that they do not infect you with their anxious thoughts.
You have probably noticed how strongly other people can affect us.  When you hang around anxious people, you may pick up their worries and start worrying yourself. So stay away from them.