Overcoming Test Anxiety
Many students have trouble with test anxiety and are frustrated by their lack of ability to manage it. So, here are some helpful tips. First, of course, you should adequately prepare for the exam. No amount of relaxation techniques, meditation, or visualization will overcome lack of preparation. You’ve got to know the material! However, some find that knowing the material is not enough to overcome their anxiety about being tested. For these students some basic techniques in relaxation, meditation, and visualization can prove quite helpful.
As a student myself I instinctively developed certain rituals that I always performed before every exam. I never studied late the night before an exam believing that an evening of relaxation, a good dinner, and a good night’s sleep were important to help prepare for the morning’s exam. Walking to the exam, I did some positive self talk, telling myself that I had prepared, I studied, I knew the material and it was now time to demonstrate that knowledge. When I entered the classroom before the exam, I never took out my notes or book to do last minute studying. The idea behind this is quite simple. If you act as if you still need to study for the exam then you will make yourself believe you still need to study. You will begin questioning your preparation and wonder if perhaps you have forgotten everything. You will set yourself up for a whole host of negative thoughts and just the time when you need to be thinking positively. Once I received the exam I would look at each question carefully before beginning. This gave me time to collect my thoughts and begin planning how to proceed. I identified the easier questions so I could begin with them and save the more difficult questions until the end. Above all, I recognized that each exam would contain some difficult questions that might take more time. I didn’t panic when I saw them because I was prepared for their appearance.
Most of these rituals were developed for my own practice without any thought to whether they would help others or not. I just felt that having some set rituals would benefit my test taking efforts. As it turns out, the process of developing rituals before a stressful activity is psychologically sound advice. A good resource for more information on this is Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning. In it he describes the same basic method of developing a set of rituals to prepare for optimum performance. The set of rituals does not matter as much as the process. You may find that a different approach from the one I described above works for you. The important key is that you develop something that puts you in the proper frame of mind and is predictable. The best antidote to anxiety is to plan for it, anticipate it, and be willing to face it with confidence.
As he advises, you begin by focusing on a positive activity you enjoy. He gives an example in the book of a father playing catch with his son. You then plan a set of rituals to perform before this very pleasant activity. These can be simple meditation exercises, a short exercise routine, listening to music. Again, the specific activity doesn’t matter. The goal is to provide yourself with a set of steps that ultimately prepare you for the pleasant state of mind you will be in when you engage in this positive activity you enjoy.
Once this ritual is in place and part of your habit, you can transfer it to other activities and you will realize the same benefit. In other words, if you perform this ritual before taking an exam, the psychological feeling of the ritual ending with a positive activity you enjoy will transfer and you‘ll be in a much better frame of mind for your exam. You can defeat your test anxiety by the use of this ritual since the cues of this ritual were designed with a positive anxiety-free activity as their goal. The exam will then take on the feeling of the positive anxiety-free activity.
If this doesn't work or your anxiety is particularly strong, you might find Viktor Frankl’s approach called paradoxical intention to be effective. Here the idea is to confront your anxiety by trying to heighten it, thus the paradox. As Frankl points out one of the most troublesome factors in anxiety is the anticipation of having anxiety. You are faced with a situation which produces anxiety but even before you are facing the situation you begin worrying about having anxiety and thinking about what it will be like and dreading the results. But, like a martial artist who uses their opponent’s force against them, you can use the force of anxiety against itself. Frankl advises that in situations like this you try to really make yourself anxious. Try to have the worst anxiety attack ever. Imagine all the feelings you have when you are anxious and really try to have them as bad as you possibly can. Of course, what you discover is that you can’t do it! Just like when you try to sneeze or hiccup and are unable to. By calling attention to the anxiety and trying to have it you minimize its power and are able to make light of it. The situation of trying to make yourself anxious becomes so ridiculous that you find it humorous. As Frankl points out, you can use humor to diffuse your anxiety. You can even make this part of your ritual!
Anxiety is not normally considered a laughing matter but you can make it the object of ridicule and overcome it. By practicing and formulating some basic rituals to perform before you take an exam you can maximize your study efforts and minimize your anxiety. To the extent that you can make test preparation less stressful you can make learning more fun and this will in turn help reduce your anxiety.