School 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?