Why Anxiety Can Arise on Tests and How to Deal with It
It is common that anxiety can arise so we should know how to deal with it. If you’re a stressed-out test taker, keep in mind that the body puts out chemicals, such as cortisol, when it is under stress. This can cause sweaty palms, a racing heart, and a knot in the pit of your stomach. But interestingly, research finds that it’s how you interpret those symptoms—the story you tell yourself about why you are stressed—that makes all the difference. If you shift your thinking from “this test has made me afraid” to “this test has got me excited to do my best!” it can make a significant improvement in your performance.
Another good tip for panicky test takers is to momentarily turn your attention to your breathing. Relax your stomach, place your hand on it, and slowly draw a deep breath. Your hand should move out, even as your whole chest is moving outward like an expanding barrel.
By doing this type of deep breathing, you are sending oxygen to critical areas of your brain. This signals that all is well and helps calm you down. But don’t just start this breathing on the day of the test. If you have practiced this breathing technique in the weeks before—just a minute or two here and there is all it take —you will slide more easily into the breathing pattern during the test. (Remember, practice makes permanent!) It’s particularly helpful to move into the deeper breathing pattern in those final anxious moments before a test is handed out. (And yes, if you’re interested, there are dozens of apps to help you.)
Another technique involves mindfulness. In this technique, you learn to distinguish between a naturally arising thought (I have a big test next week) and an emotional projection that can tag along after that initial thought (If I flunk the test, I will wash out of the program, and I’m not sure what I’ll do then!). These tagalong thoughts, it seems, are projections that arise as glimmers from the diffuse mode. Even a few weeks of simple practice in learning to reframe these thoughts and feelings as simple mental tagalong projections seems to help ease and quiet the mind. Reframing your reaction to such intrusive thoughts works much better than simply trying to suppress them. Students who spent a few weeks practicing with the mindfulness approach performed better on their tests, experiencing fewer distracting thoughts.
Now you can see why waiting until the end of the test to work on the hardest questions can lead to problems. Just when you are increasingly stressed out because you are running out of time, you are also suddenly facing the toughest problems! As your stress levels soar, you concentrate intently, thinking that focused attention will solve your problems, but of course, your focus instead prevents the diffuse mode from being able to go to work.
Bonus Tips On How To Attempt Tests
The day before a test (or tests), have a quick look over the materials to brush up on them. You’ll need both your focused-mode and diffuse mode “muscles” the next day, so you don’t want to push your brain too hard. (You wouldn’t run a ten mile race the day before running a marathon.) Don’t feel guilty if you can’t seem to get yourself to work too hard the day before a big examination. If you’ve prepared properly, this is a natural reaction: You are subconsciously pulling back to conserve mental energy.
While taking a test, you should also remember how your mind can trick you into thinking what you’ve done is correct, even if it isn’t. This means that, whenever possible, you should blink, shift your attention, and then double-check your answers using a big-picture perspective, asking yourself, “Does this really make sense?” There is often more than one way to solve a problem, and checking your answers from a different perspective provides a golden opportunity for verifying what you’ve done.
If there’s no other way to check except to step back through your logic, keep in mind that simple issues like missed minus signs, incorrectly added numbers, and “dropped atoms” have tripped up even the most advanced mathematics, science, and engineering students. Just do your best to catch them. In science classes, having your units of measurement match on each side of the equation can provide an important clue about whether you’ve done the problem correctly.
The order in which you work tests is also important. Students generally work tests from front to back. When you are checking your work, if you start more toward the back and work toward the front, it sometimes seems to give your brain a fresher perspective that can allow you to more easily catch errors.
Nothing is ever certain. Occasionally you can study hard and the test gods simply don’t cooperate. But if you prepare well by practicing and by building a strong mental library of problemsolving techniques, and approach test taking wisely, you will find that luck will increasingly be on your side.