Live More, Fear Less: Test Anxiety (Can Work for You)

TestTaking2School has been back in session now for several months, and for many people that has meant lots of reading, studying, homework, studying, essays, studying…and the dreaded test days. When I was in school, I loved teachers who gave multiple choice tests – give me a list of answers to choose from and I’m in heaven. I probably don’t have to mention how I felt about math and essay exams.

Everyone knows the basic steps to prepare for test days: Study. Sleep. Eat.

  • If you know you suffer from test anxiety, you’re going to have to be more diligent than those who aren’t afflicted. Keeping up with reading assignments and homework is the first and best way to get ready in advance for an exam. Going into a test as prepared as possible will give you confidence and help ease anxiety.
  • Finding the time to get enough sleep every day is hard enough for those who aren’t going to school, for students it’s even worse. But if you don’t get at least six hours of sleep every night, you’ll be running on a sleep deficit, and that can affect your concentration. If you can’t do it on any other night, at least get a good night’s sleep the night before a test.
  • You have your own morning routine that may or may not include breakfast, but do your body and your brain a favor – eat well on test days, and include protein and not too much sugar.

If you’re not one of those (strange) people who thrive on the challenge of taking tests, you’ll need to take a few steps to make your test anxiety work for you.

Muscle tension, headache, faster breathing, increased heart rate and perspiration – these are some of the physical manifestations of fear related to the natural fight or flight response (see my post on survival instinct). If you have test anxiety, your mind has perceived your test as a threat to you and has prepared your body to stand and fight or run away. These physical changes can help you think more quickly, but they can also lead to restlessness because your body is now ready for action. If this is how your body normally reacts on test days, give these few things a try:

  • Be good to yourself. When you first start feeling these fight-or-flight symptoms, try to remember that your body’s natural defense will help you focus on what’s to come. Don’t fight it and don’t beat yourself up over your “silly” fears.
  • Arrive early at the testing place. Give yourself enough time to do some kind of physical activity like walking around the building or up and down the halls for a few minutes to help release muscle tension. (Arriving early is also essential to allow a bathroom break for those of us whose symptoms manifest themselves in that way.)
  • Breathe slowly and deeply to help you relax, before and during the test. This has a calming effect and sends oxygen to the brain.
  • To ease tension during a test, do some subtle stretching of your arms, legs, and shoulders. If you notice others tapping pencils/pens or nervously tapping their heels, realize you’re not the only one feeling anxious.
  • When taking the test, ponder the questions for only a few seconds and skip those you can’t answer immediately (math questions take longer, of course), and then go back later. Staying on one question for too long can cause even more anxiety and a loss of focus. In my student years, I found that as I moved through a test, my initial freak out/brain freeze cleared away enough that I was able to answer most of the questions on the second pass through.

These suggestions can be adapted to many situations where you’re being tested. Whether for a job interview, a presentation, or a talk: study in advance, get enough sleep, eat right, relax, release muscle tension, remember to breathe. And be good to yourself. When you don’t have the choice to flee, use your natural survival instinct to stand and fight.

How do you combat test anxiety?

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Dealing with Fear: A Logical Approach

Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows; it empties today of its strength. ~ Corrie ten Boom

Worry is a first cousin to fear – a wasteful, sneaky, whisper-in-your-ear kind of cousin. In my own quest to be less fearful, I’ve found the following strategies to be the most helpful:

Allow Yourself One Big Fear (and/or several small ones). And don’t beat yourself up over it. Fear can be normal and helpful (see my post on survival instinct). Everyone is afraid of something, even big, burly manly men – they just hide it better. I say, if you can carry on your daily life, moving forward more than you move backward, then your fear is not a problem.

Rehearse/Prepare. I don’t suggest we think about our fear or worry continuously – that might already be part of the problem. But consider what you’re really worried or fearful about. Afraid to talk to someone in person or on the phone? Write out what to say ahead of time. Are you actually afraid of the unknown in a situation rather than the situation itself? Before going on a job interview: research the job, the company, and ask yourself/answer possible interview questions.

Share. Don’t go it alone. If you’re worried about raising your kids, find mothers in your neighborhood, at church, at your child’s school to hang out with or talk to. Whatever the situation, talking to someone can help work through our fears. And chances are, someone is going through the same kind of thing or has already made it through the other side.

Pray. Some people don’t consider prayer logical. But belief in Someone greater than yourself, who cares for you and has the power to do anything, is a necessity of life these days. Prayer can chase away worry and bring peace to a troubled soul.  

Get Involved. Helping others, helps yourself. It takes the energy that your worry wastes and channels it toward someone or something that needs it more. There are people all around us that need help, many of them in worse places than we are.

Be Grateful. It’s been said that the fastest escape from worry is appreciation. Imagine how good we could feel if we spent our time appreciating what we have in life instead of wasting it on worry. For ideas on making gratitude a habit, go to my post Have a Grateful Day.

Act. Doing something is really what this list is about. Anything that causes worry should be acted on, not just thought about. Even the smallest action can alleviate fear. Make a list, make a plan, make a phone call. Go on the internet and do research.

Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit at home and think about it. Go out and get busy. ~ Dale Carnegie

These are just a few suggestions, but if worry or fear has taken over your life to the point that you can’t leave the house or if you’re overwhelmed/depressed and are having trouble carrying on, please talk to someone – seek out a listening ear at your church or with a health care professional. Sometimes we do need help outside ourselves, and that’s okay. We weren’t meant to go through life alone.

How do you deal with worry?

Live More, Fear Less: Passing on Our Fears

My friend’s baby, startled by the awful grating noise of a paper shredder, looked quickly at me. Her eyes were wide, mouth open but not making a sound as she sat, rigid now, in her baby carrier a few feet from me. In that instant I knew that sweet little thing was looking to me either for reassurance or to know if she should really be afraid. She was only a few months old, but she had that survival instinct built into each of us to fear the unknown. Her mother’s back was turned to her while she fed papers into the shredder, so the baby had turned to me, the only other person in the room, to see how I reacted to the noise. I smiled and said silly things. She kicked and gurgled, her fear gone.

That’s the way it is – our children are little sponges. And if we’re not careful, as they sop up the good things we want them to learn, they can also acquire other things we’d rather them not.

Some fears are more normal than others (see my post on survival instinct). But the more vocal or animated parents are about what they themselves are afraid of, the easier it is for a child to learn to be afraid of those same things. Like if we scream and run every time we see a bug. Or if we’re overcautious of germs or afraid to try new things (whether food, a different sport, or traveling).

Our children don’t have to acquire our fears. We can pass them on or determine not to by the choices we make. The following is an excerpt from a post written by Ericka Waller for Circus Queen:

Living with anxiety left me living a half-life. Forget rock, paper, scissors – fear beats them all hands down. If fear were a trump card, it would always win the game.

The thought of my daughters spending a single second feeling how I felt for all those years, how sometimes I still feel on bad days, fills me with dread. It forces me to stand in long queues with them at zoos and parks and shops, even though the urge to run away (fight or flight response) is so strong my head spins. It forces me to drive on the motorway, even though, for me, it’s a white knuckle ride. It forces me to eat food I hate, so they might love it. It forces me to stop, to think, to censor. It pushes me out my comfort zone.

My love for my daughters stands shoulder to shoulder with my fear. It looks it in the eye and says “I’m not scared of you.” But I still bite my nails.

I will not let my girls see me struggle however. They will never know my fear. This will not happen to them. I simply shall not let it.

My mother happily handed down her insecurities, phobias and failings to me, and I, just a little four[-year-old], happily biting her nails, happily accepted them.

It stops here.

I never wanted my children to be like me, to be afraid to do or even to try. When they were young (and so was I), I loved and respected them and hoped that would be enough. With my granddaughter, I am more aware of my influence on her and more purposeful in my encouragement. I want her to experience life more fearlessly than I have.

Do you have fears that were passed on to you? Do you have fears you don’t want to pass on?

Live More, Fear Less: Survival Instinct

Let’s be kind to ourselves. 

Many of our fears are connected to the possibility of being hurt or losing our lives. The physical changes that happen to us when we’re afraid – dilation of pupils, an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, a rise in blood sugar, tensing of muscles – are meant to help us survive, to get us ready to fight or flee.

Some kinds of fear are a result of conditioning – circumstances in our past that create fear in us. Being bit by a dog can develop into a fear of dogs, even cute, little docile breeds. Being trapped in a closet could lead to claustrophobia. Falling into deep water and not being able to swim might even make a person fearful when looking at a photo of the ocean.

Fear might also be rooted in our natural survival instinct. It’s possible that people who are afraid of snakes, spiders, rats, etc have a stronger survival instinct than others who don’t share this same fear. Ages ago, when the bite of these creeping creatures killed humans on a much more regular basis than they do today, running away meant staying alive. Those that survived might have passed on this specific tendency in their genes.

Even those social fears that many of us have might also be related to our survival instinct. Take the fear of public speaking – what if you make mistakes/sound stupid/freeze up/vomit all over everyone? This fear could stem from being laughed at one too many times. Or maybe it comes from somewhere deep in our genetic makeup – an instinct to avoid the one-versus-many scenario (as in lynch mob).

Fear is a natural response to real or perceived threats to our physical or emotional beings, whether we’re conscious of them or not. Our fears are real, no matter their roots. And everyone is afraid of something.

So be kind to yourself. The next time you’re tempted to beat yourself up over a “silly” fear, try to remember that your response to those things you’re afraid of may very well have kept you (and your ancestors) alive.

Has your response in a fearful situation ever saved your life?