In a nod to the popular trend of naming months for various causes, I propose we designate June as Test Anxiety Awareness Month.
Students, whether studying for finals, college entrance exams, or professional licensing exams, are likely to experience at least some anxiety in anticipation of their test.
As long as that anxiety stays in the mild to moderate range, it can actually be beneficial, because it motivates them to study harder. Far too often, though, anxiety rises and triggers a host of symptoms that interfere with both studying and test performance.
Why behavioral approaches don’t work
The most often recommended solutions for test anxiety involve modifying one’s behavior. Students are told to organize their time, review past tests, avoid cramming, and even to eat a good breakfast on the day of the test. While these approaches can be helpful, they don’t work as long- term solutions, because they don’t change students’ upsetting thoughts about tests – the true cause of their anxiety.
The true cause of test anxiety
Many people think that test anxiety stems from a bad experience – failing a test, for example. Yet, research shows that most bad feelings come from illogical thoughts about what has happened to you – from the way you think about the event (I’m a loser. Everyone will look down on me.) rather than the event itself.
In reality, it’s not the exam that causes your distress. It’s your thoughts about the exam that trigger your anxiety.
Imagine these thoughts going through your mind during an exam: I should have studied harder. My future will be ruined if I don’t do well. My parents will be so disappointed in me.
You’re likely to be a distracted, nervous wreck! Not the best state of mind for successful performance – regardless of how hard the test really is.
Now imagine thinking more balanced thoughts like, I may not be able to answer all these questions, but I’ll be able to answer the majority. One test isn’t going to make or break my future. My parents might be disappointed, but they’ll also be supportive.
In this case, you’re more likely to be calm and focused during the test, and more able to perform to your potential.
Taking Control of Test Anxiety
Let me share another, more personal example with you. Last week my niece, Ruth, called to say that she was waking up every morning with a knot in her stomach. I wasn’t surprised since she’s currently studying about eight hours or more a day for her medical boards licensing exam in early June. I was glad she called, because I knew we could quickly reduce her anxiety.
Since Ruth had used the Mood Switch throughout college, she was ready to take a break from studying physiology to study her thoughts instead. First, we uncovered her negative thoughts about the exam. These were a few of Ruth’s negative thoughts:
I’m not going to have enough time to learn everything.
I’ll get tired and lose focus during the exam.
I won’t get the score I want.
After looking over her thoughts, Ruth (who’s had lots of practice identifying her illogical thought patterns, thanks to her uncle!) realized she was engaging in Negative Focus (focusing on the negatives and ignoring the positives about herself and the situation) and Black and White Thinking (looking at situations as “either-or”). For example, she believed she’d either have enough time or she wouldn’t. The truth lay somewhere in the middle.
Next, Ruth created more realistic, helpful thoughts to “talk back” to her negative ones. These were some of Ruth’s more realistic thoughts.
I’m doing a good job of sticking to my study schedule, so I’ll certainly have time to learn the most important topics.
I don’t need to learn everything perfectly. If I get pressed for time, I can focus on the high priority topics.
The practice exams will show me how to pace myself, so I won’t get tired.
I’m going to be so well prepared for this exam, I won’t get distracted and lose focus due to performance anxiety.
By studying hard, I’ve taken care of everything I can control. There’s a good chance that I’ll do even better than I expect.
I’m much more successful when I’m confident. Being nervous serves no purpose and helps me in no way!
In about fifteen minutes, Ruth felt much more relaxed and confident and was ready to begin a productive day of studying.
If you, or your child, suffer from test anxiety, make your thoughts part of your test preparation. First, write down any upsetting thoughts you have about your upcoming test or tests in general. Then write down more realistic, balancing thoughts to counteract your upsetting thoughts. Keep a list of your balancing thoughts by your study area, and read them aloud whenever you begin to feel anxious.
Good luck on your next test! Let me know how you do.