Some tips for dealing with test anxiety

by Amy Yelin - Student Development and Counseling Center

Having trouble studying? Can't concentrate? Do you read the same word or problem over and over again without getting anywhere? Or do you just avoid studying - find something easier, more comfortable to do? Or wait, maybe you do study, but when you sit down to take a test your mind goes blank? Any of these sound familiar? If so, what you've got is probably a good case of test anxiety. And if you do, you're not alone.

We all feel anxious at some time in our lives. And exam time is a pretty common time for a lot of students to experience feelings of anxiety. What exactly is anxiety? Simply, it's a feeling of fear. Most times, the fear isn't of something obvious or real. You're worrying about something in the future, some catastrophe or danger that doesn't actually exist. When you're feeling anxious about a test, what you're usually afraid of is failure. It can cloud your mind with negative thoughts, make it difficult to concentrate, and keep you so worried about the possible catastrophic outcome that you can't attend to the task at hand - be it studying or taking a test. But there are ways to beat it.

Try confronting your fears. I know it sounds silly, but it really can work. Your anxiety tries to fool you into thinking that you CAN'T study, that you WON'T pass the test. The key to overcoming that anxiety is by not letting it get the better of you. Here are three ways to do that.

1. You're having trouble concentrating and you begin to panic. You tell yourself, "I can't study! I can't even read one word!" You feel afraid because the anxiety is making you think you can't function properly. So challenge this statement - read one word. Then read one paragraph and summarize it. Are you functioning properly? You'll see that you were probably wrong, and your panic will disappear and you'll be able to continue studying.

2. Try the compartmentation technique. Put your anxiety in a "mental box" and ignore it. Ask yourself how specifically your anxiety could hurt your performance on a test, and then create ways to work around these problems. Now, the anxiety is still there, and you might still feel uncomfortable, but it won't be able to stop you.

3. Take some worry breaks. Instead of allowing anxious thoughts and feelings to interrupt you while you study, take planned one-minute breaks and use them to do all your fretting agonizing, and worrying. It's good to take one about every 10-15 minutes or so.

All right, now I know you're going to hate me for this next piece of advice, but think positive. Easier said than done, huh? But our negative thoughts play a great role in this whole anxiety thing. Try to pay attention to your negative thoughts. If you can, write them down. Then try to identify the distortions in them, and substitute more positive and realistic thoughts. For example, one form of twisted, or negative, thinking is called fortune-telling. In this scenario, while taking a test, you can tell yourself something like "I'm really going to blow it. What if I fail?" You can substitute a more rational thought by saying something like, "The exam has four sections. Maybe I'll do badly on one, but not all four. I've passed nearly all the exams I've taken so far; there's a good chance I'll pass this one." See the difference? The fact of the matter is this - things usually turn out better if you anticipate success, not failure, and adopt a more positive attitude.

And if you find yourself sitting with that test, or staring at that textbook, and the anxiety seems overwhelming, try breathing. Well, I know you're already breathing, but take slow, deep breaths. Often this helps to diminish anxious feelings.

One more thing - don't procrastinate. Oftentimes, when you're feeling anxious and afraid, it's easier to avoid doing something than just doing it. But the less prepared you are when you take a test, the more anxious you're going to feel. So prepare - even if you don't "feel like it," study anyway. Remember, anything tough and challenging is bound to be uncomfortable at first. Once you start to make some progress, you'll begin to feel more motivated.

Exam time is a tough time for all students. If you're still feeling stuck after trying out some of these tips, or just want to learn more about why you feel anxious and what you can do about it, feel free to come down to the Student Development and Counseling Center or call us at 831-5540. Happy testing and have a great break!

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