Handling Test Anxiety (Part 2)

Study Tip #19


  • 4 influences on feelings of worry and safety
  • What to do in a major anxiety attack
  • How to prepare the methods for use and practice

Four Influences on Feelings of Worry and Safety

1. Methods for weakening habits
When people have responded the same way to a situation for a period of time, they learn a habit, and habits can be hard to break. Many of us have grown a well-practiced habit of thinking we will be harmed by tests. So another way we can help ourselves is to weaken the old habit and to practice the steps of better thinking habits about our safety during tests.

When people have a habit of thinking about tests as going to harm them and thus raise their anxiety, it will conflict for a long while with newly learned positive behaviors. It is important to weaken the old habit and strengthen the new good habit. You can use the methods that people use in sports and music to change behavior.

  • Practice the new behavior in isolation from any real situation that would make the old habit rise up. Practice methods for feeling safe at home long long before a test comes up.
  • Practice new behaviors slowly, very slowly. Practice the thinking methods that lead to safe feelings very consciously and very slowly.
  • Gradually introduce things that remind you of the real thing and practice doing the new behavior.
  • Make lists of the new thinking patterns you've got and memorize them.  When in a real test, and the old bad habit is running wild, use self-talk to recall the new thoughts to mind.

2. Avoid things that make the body feel tense
When people do certain physical things and take certain foods, they can arouse tension and anxiety. So we can help ourselves by helping our bodies be healthy, strong and relaxed. Many physical conditions can influence anxiety:

  • Going without enough sleep
  • Drinking too much caffeine
  • Taking drugs that raise tension
  • Tensing muscles
  • Breathing rapidly in the upper chest

Such things can make our bodies feel tense, irritable and anxious. When possible, give yourself enough sleep for a few days before a major test, drink no more caffeine than you can tolerate, avoid drugs that leave you wired, consciously relax your body, and practice abdominal breathing.  One person went for a massage before a major event.

3. Try to break the habit of using anxiety to motivate yourself
People often create feelings in order to reach certain goals.  When people use feelings of anxiety to motivate themselves to do their homework and try hard in school, they may actually turn on anxiety even when they are in safe situations. So we can help ourselves by stopping the practice of turning on anxiety.

Sometimes we motivate ourselves positively by imagining a delightful result in the future and feeling drawn to achieve it. Other times we motivate ourselves negatively by imagining bad things that will happen if we don't act, by feeling anxious and by needing to act to fight off the danger. When people use negative motivation most of the time, they can even make themselves anxious about tests that they really have the ability to do well on. They have learned to create worry in order to make themselves work, try, and face unpleasant events. If you live this way, then your old habit will fight your attempt to lessen test anxiety because your mind will fear that you will go passive and put things off and stop trying. The cure: Try positive motivation. Think of end results and their good features and you will be drawn to them.  Take washing dishes: Don't think of your fear that if you leave them unwashed, they'll look ugly and you'll be afraid of others' criticism. Instead, think of how nice the kitchen will be with everything clean, orderly and ready for the next meal. Nice!

4. Try to see this test as different than other ones
When people interpret a new experience as another example of a familiar category, they think and feel about the new as if it were the old.  Similarly, when we expect that an upcoming test will be the same as bad ones in our past, we react the same. However, if we can spot what's new and different about the new test, we have hope for escaping the trap of the old bad habits.

People who feel test anxiety often report that there are certain tests in certain subjects where they feel safe and don't worry. People good in math don't worry about it, but they may worry about their history exam.  This fact leads to two-part advice:

1. Remind yourself that this test is not the bad tests in the past that have scared you. It is different.
2. Consciously look for what is new and more hopeful about your upcoming test or the test you are taking than the bad ones in the past. What are some possibilities?

  • You may be taking a fairer test than before.
  • You may be more mature, more knowledgeable, be more test-wise.
  • You may know the subject better.
  • You may have practiced and reviewed better.

What To Do in a Major Anxiety Attack During a Test
Suppose you are in a test and the teacher has just passed out the tests and you look at the questions and you feel intensely anxious. You can hardly think. It's worse than normal worry. It's similar to the old saying, "I was so worried I couldn't remember my own name." What do you do?
Here are several suggestions. Do any one or more.

  • Put your pencil down, shut your eyes, and let the anxiety fully into your consciousness for 2 to 5 minutes. Stop fighting the worry.  Notice feelings, thoughts, words, and mental imagery. It won't hurt you any more than it does already. Remember that your mind is trying to protect you by telling you that you are in danger and need to fight or flee. Acknowledge these messages. The feelings will peak and gradually lessen. As they lessen, you will gradually have some mental space to start thinking again.
  • Breathe in deeply and hold your breath to the count of 10. Let your breath out. Do it again, perhaps 5 times or more. It will help calm you.
  • Put a label on the feelings: They are symptoms of test anxiety, produced by your brain. They are not identical with you.
  • Make an explanation for the feelings: They are caused by a combination of your past habits of worry firing off and your mind's interpretation that there is danger. These causes are not identical with you.  There is more to you.
  • Ask yourself if you can still do your job of answering the test questions even with the feelings. Usually you will have enough of your "self" and "will" left that you can choose to start the test.
  • Start a healthy activity going. Since you are in the test, look at the test and hunt for questions where you know something and work on those questions first. As you work on those questions, you will activate your memory for more material, and as you get some answers right, your self-confidence will rise. People often find they gain memory for more and more material.

Prepare Your Methods in Advance for Dealing With Test Anxiety and Practice Them
At this point, I, as the author of this pair of Study Tips on test anxiety, feel "worried" that you, the reader, are going to finish and never take steps to really learn even one of these methods. Sadly, most of us read self-help material, notice that lots of it makes sense and put it down. We think we have fixed our problem by reading the advice.  No.

You need to prepare your mind so that when you are in a test, you can handle worry with at least one good technique. It is good to be so prepared with at least one well-learned and well-practiced technique that you can easily recall it and do it under pressure. How do you prepare?

  • First, pick one technique. One.
  • Read it over until you understand it.
  • Then convert it into an imagined situation, goal, and actions that you will experience. Suppose you chose the method of seeing that the current test is new and different from past terrible ones. Then at home at leisure, imagine seeing the situation of the test room, teacher and students, the test. Feel your goal to feel safe. Then imagine thinking about the action, which would be thinking of the specific ways that this test is new, unique, and different from the past ones.  And hopeful. Say to yourself, "This is my college test on X.  It is not my terrible sixth grade math test with awful Mrs. Grundy.  That's gone in the past."
  • After practicing one, practice the others one by one.
  • Finally, make a reminder list of techniques. Practice reciting the list until you could recall the techniques even when scared.