You may know (or remember) the feeling – you have a big exam coming up, you’ve studied for hours, but when you finally sit down to take the test, your mind goes blank. This experience, called test anxiety, is unfortunately quite common. And, with state standardized tests, SAT/ACTs, and end of the year exams fast upon us, it’s likely that you or someone you know will experience test anxiety in the coming weeks.
Whether you’re taking a test yourself or you’re noticing signs of anxiety in your child or teen, research shows that giving students tools for coping with test-taking stress and practicing good test preparation habits can significantly decrease these symptoms. We’ll take a two-pronged approach to combating test anxiety (based on the recommendations of the Anxiety Disorders Association). This week, we’ll discuss ways to notice and change anxious thinking.
First, it’s important to remember that it’s normal to feel some anxiety before a test. In fact, research shows that we perform best in situations when we are alert (i.e. slightly anxious), but not overly stressed. Take a look at the graph below, called the Yerkes-Dodson curve, which is based on research by psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson on the relationship between performance and arousal. It illustrates that some anxiety is optimal; increased arousal is an indication that the task at hand is important and arousal enhances energy and attention.
It’s when our anxiety moves toward the high end of the scale that it begins to negatively impact our performance and we experience things such as our mind “going blank,” feelings of dread, or we become distracted by our anxious thoughts. The key is to keep our anxiety from getting too high and moving to the “test interfering” side of the scale.
The first step is to pay attention to your thoughts. Our thoughts often occur automatically, without conscious awareness of their content. And, when we think that something bad will happen, it often leads to more anxiety. So, the first step is:
1. Pay attention to your thoughts. Practice identifying what thoughts come right before your feelings of anxiety.
- What am I thinking right now?
- Am I feeling worried?
- What bad things do I expect to happen?
If you’re noticing that you (or a family member) are anxious before a test, try gently asking open-ended questions such as these to help identify anxious thinking.
2. Ask, are my thoughts about the test balanced and accurate? Our thoughts are just guesses, and they aren’t always accurate guesses. Try asking questions such as:
- Am I 100% sure that this [failing the test] will happen?
- How many times has this [failing the test] happened before?
- What is the worst that could happen?
- If it did happen, what could I do to cope with it?
These questions should not be asked in a confrontational way, but are intended to help you or someone you know consider alternative interpretations and more realistic outcomes.
3. Replace anxious thoughts with realistic thinking.
- Try coming up with statements that remind you of something helpful you can do before the test:
- “This happened before and I still passed the test”
- “I can take a break to walk outside and breath if I get too anxious”
- “Everyone feels nervous during a test, and I can handle it”
- Imagine that you are your best friend and give yourself a pep talk:
- “You have prepared and you can do this!”
- “Lots of people struggle on tests and you are not [bad, stupid, a loser; or the negative statements you tend to make ] just because you struggle with tests”
- Once you’ve recognized that your thinking might be unrealistic, try coming up with a more balanced thought:
- For example, you might say, “It’s possible that I won’t pass tomorrow, but I have studied for the test and I passed my last two exams. If I don’t pass this one, it does not mean that I will fail the class.”
- Or, try reminding yourself of the actions that you can take if you do fail, “If I don’t pass this test, I will go to the teacher and ask if there is anything I can do to improve my grade. Or (if it’s a test such as the ACT/SAT), I will study more and re-take the test.”
Next, we’ll discuss test preparation tips, relaxation strategies, and other behavior changes that help curb test anxiety.