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Counselling Centre

Resources - Coping with Test Anxiety

Test anxiety has two components, mental and physical. The mental component of stress includes all your thoughts and worries about tests. The physical component includes feelings, sensations, and tension. The following techniques deal with the mental and physical components of stress in any situation, whether it be test anxiety or stage fright.

Dealing with thoughts

Yell "Stop!"

When you notice that your thoughts are racing, that your mind is cluttered with worries and fears, that your thoughts are spinning out of control, mentally yell "Stop!"

If you're in a situation that allows it, yell it out loud. This action is likely to momentarily break the cycle of worry.

Once you've stopped it for a moment, you can use any one of the following techniques:

Daydream

When you fill your mind with pleasant thoughts, there is no room left for anxiety. When you notice yourself worrying about an upcoming test, substitute your thoughts of doom with visions of something you like to do. Daydream about being with a friend or walking alone in a special place.

Visualize success

Most of us live up to our own expectations, good or bad. If you spend a lot of time mentally rehearsing how it will be to fail, you increase your chances of failure.

Once you've stopped the cycle of worry, take time to rehearse what it will be like when you succeed. Be specific. Create detailed pictures, actions, and even sounds as part of your visualization.

Focus

Focus your attention on a specific object. Examine details of a painting, study the branches on a tree, observe the face of your watch, right down to the tiny scratches in the glass.

During the exam, take a few seconds to listen to the sound of the lights in the room. Touch the surface of your desk and notice the texture.

Concentrate all your attention on one point. Don't leave room in your mind for anxiety-related thoughts.

This focusing is very similar to meditation techniques. The idea is to calm your mind by occupying it with a particular sensation – sight, sound or touch.

Praise yourself

Talk to yourself in a positive way. Many of us take the first opportunity to say, "way to go, dummy, you don't even know the answer to the first question on the test." Most of us wouldn't dream of treating a friend that way, yet we do this to ourselves.

An alternative is to give yourself encouragement. Treat yourself as well as you would treat your best friend. Consider telling yourself: I am very relaxed. I am doing a great job on this test. I'm answering these questions well. I have lots of tools that will help me with recall.

Dealing with feelings

Breathe

You can calm physical sensations within your body by focusing your attention on your breathing. Concentrate on the air going in and out of your lungs. Experience it as it passes through your nose and mouth.

Do this for two to five minutes. If you notice that you are taking short, shallow breaths, begin to take longer and deeper breaths. Fill your lungs and abdomen, then release all the air. Imagine yourself standing on the tip of your nose. Watch the breath pass in and out as if your nose were a huge ventilation shaft for an underground mine.

Scan your body

Simple awareness is an effective technique to reduce the tension in your body.

Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Start at your feet. Focus your attention on the muscles in your feet and notice if they are relaxed. Tell the muscles in your feet that they can relax.

Move up to your ankles and repeat the procedure. Next go to your calves and thighs and buttocks, telling each group of muscles to relax.

Do the same for your lower back, diaphragm, chest, upper back, neck, shoulders, jaw, face, upper arms, lower arms, fingers, and scalp.

Tense and relax

If you are aware of a particularly tense part of your body or if you discover tension when you're scanning your body, you can release this with the tense-relax method.
To do this, find a muscle that is tense and make it even more tense. If your shoulders are tense, pull them back, arch your back, and tense your shoulder muscles evenly more tightly, then relax. The net result is that you can be aware of the relaxation and allow yourself to relax more.

You can use the same process with your legs, arms, abdomen, chest, face, and neck. Clench your fists, tighten your jaw, straighten your legs, and tense your abdomen all at once. Then relax.

Use guided imagery

Relax completely and take a quick fantasy trip. Close your eyes, relax your body and imagine yourself in a beautiful, peaceful, natural setting. Create as much of the scene as you can. Be specific. Use all your senses. You might imagine yourself at a beach: Hear the surf rolling in and the seagulls calling to each other, feel the sun on your face, notice the ships on the horizon and the rolling sand dunes. Others may find that a mountain scene or lush meadow works. Think of a real place you have been!

Get help

When these techniques don't work or when anxiety is very bothersome, get help. If you become withdrawn, feel depressed for more than a few days, or have prolonged feelings of hopelessness, see a counsellor.

Reproduced with permission from Becoming a Master Student. David B. Ellis 1985

Writing in class

Reducing exam anxiety

Managing your stress

  • participate in activities that release stress
  • get adequate rest & exercise
  • eat a balanced diet
  • avoid being over-committed
  • use relaxation techniques
  • keep things in perspective
  • challenge your negative self-talk
  • focus on the "positive" progress you are making

Preventing exam anxiety

  • know the percentage value of the exam (less critical if it's worth 15%)
  • know the format of the exam
  • double check date, time & location of exam
  • visit the exam room a few days before
  • eat and sleep normally before the exam
  • arrive at the exam room 10 minutes early
  • engage in a normal calming activity before the exam (e.g. walking, breathing)

Avoiding panic during the exam

  • perform the relaxation technique that you have been practicing (e.g. deep breathing)
  • take a break to refocus
  • have and follow an overall strategy for writing the exam
  • do the easiest questions first
  • don't let the hard questions upset you. They will be there. Focus on the questions you can answer first and then go back
  • tell yourself to ignore the other students, especially those that leave early
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