The numbers swim in front of me, and the clock ticks loudly. My mind is blank. I’m dumb. I’m going to fail. My Mom is going to kill me. I’m way too hot and everyone around me is writing so fast, there is no way I can finish this test…
This is my experience of test taking, from way back in grade school, right up to now. And I know I’m not alone. With school in full swing, I’m betting there’s a lot of test anxiety floating around.
There seems to be two types of people in this world—those folks who think tests are a motivating challenge which will shine a light on their skills (hi Abs), and those of us who hear that word TEST and immediately break into a sweaty hopelessness. I am speaking today, to my tribe: those of us who experience test-taking much like a visit to the dentist (or who have children with test anxiety).
Read a mainstream article on test anxiety and it will surely say that, to combat the anxiety, you should study in increments (not cram for the test), get a lot of rest the night before, and eat well. I, personally, do not find these tips very helpful for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that sleeping well the night before an exam is not even remotely possible. And how do you study “in increments?” Eating well—well, that’s a whole other website. Anyway, in the real world, these intangibles seem unlikely to help anyone truly suffering from this form of anxiety. Here are my suggestions, based on my own experience and the experience of many other anxiety sisters and their kids:
1) Talk to yourself. If you know you suffer from anxiety around tests, have a mantra ready. It could be something simple like “I’m okay” or “I’m ready for this” or “breathe in and out” or “I can do this.” When you find yourself saying things like “I’ll never finish on time or I can’t do this,” take a moment and repeat your mantra to yourself.
2) Breathe. Some people have found that a very simple breathing exercise is helpful both when they sit down to take the test and while they are working on their answers. Try taking 5 slow, deep breaths inhaling for a count of three and exhaling for a count of four. The breathing will slow your mind (and heart rate) so that you can think.
3) Go with your first guess. Research has shown that those of us with test anxiety are not good second guessers. When we go back and change our mind about our answers, we have a much worse track record than our non-anxious counterparts. This is because anxiety causes you to overthink, often until you are spinning. Your first impulse, thought, or idea was probably the correct one.
4) Get support. While academic tutors are certainly helpful, you may also need support around the anxiety. Let your teachers and school counselor know what’s going on. If you are in college, visit your advisor or one of the mental health counselors. They may be able to arrange for accommodations such as more time to take the test and a quiet environment, free of anxiety-provoking distractions.
5) Be patient and compassionate with yourself. Anxiety is not easy to manage (in fact, it is harder than any school test I have ever taken), and it takes time to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Each test can be an opportunity to experiment and gather a little more information about what helps (for example, listening to music before a test, using a mantra, wearing comfortable clothing etc.). This can be a frustrating process, but under no circumstance should you punish yourself (or your child) for having anxiety. Negative self-talk (“I’m such an idiot. I’ll never get this right.”) is most definitely punishing behavior. Try to be supportive and compassionate with yourself and celebrate even small victories (such as not leaving a test in tears or having a full-blown panic attack).
6) Watch your language. How you talk about tests and grades is really important to consider in managing test anxiety. When you focus on outcomes only—such as grades/scores—and not on the effort you put into preparing and handling your anxiety is destructive and a confidence killer. As I said above, talk to yourself gently and with compassion—berating yourself (or your kids) will never help.
7) Assess. Evaluate the experience as nonjudgmentally as possible. Ask yourself or your child what went well this time and what you would do differently next time (and there will, unfortunately, always be a next time). Developing tenacity can be very empowering for anxious kids and adults. Use supportive terminology and encourage yourself (or your kids) to hang in there.
Anybody have other tips to share? Please post your comments so the whole community can benefit.