Test Anxiety? Stay Calm



Ben Bernstein, Ph.D.

         Here’s a myth: test anxiety is caused by one’s thinking.  In thirty years of coaching college student, I’ve heard many say, “I’m in a panic because I don’t think I’ll remember everything.” However, these are two separate phenomena: (1) you’re in a panic, and (2) you don’t think you’ll remember everything. The panic relates to what’s happening with your body. The negative thought-“I don’t think I’ll remember everything”-is what’s going on in your mind. While the two are connected, you need to deal with each one separately in order to achieve test success. In this post I’ll address how physical tension and bodily disturbance trigger or worsen test anxiety. I’ll also give you key study tips that will guide you to develop better study skills. If you practice, them you will calm down and move a big step toward getting the scores you deserve.

When I watch students take tests, I see quite a few of them hunching their shoulders, tensing their foreheads, tightening their  jaws, bobbing their legs up and down, wrapping their feet around their chairs, and chewing their pencils. I also see many of them frequently stopping their breath as they read exam questions. They have that deer-in-the-headlights look and everything freezes.

Freezing or tensing as you are taking a test will hurt you. A test is an ongoing, timed event. Imagine being in the middle of a basketball game and a teammate passes you the ball but you are too tense to catch it, run with it, or pass it. Athletes have to be loose and ready rather than tight and distracted. An athlete playing his or her top game is calm.

Taking a cue from sports psychology, a test taker can use the same three tools that athletes use to maintain that calm state. You don’t have to be defeated by stress.

The first tool is breathing.  When I ask students to take a deep breath they usually inflate their lungs and puff up their chests. This is a “fight or flight” breath.  The breath that will help you stay calm goes deeper. Place your hands on your belly, and as you inhale feel your belly gently push out.  Don’t force anything, just do it in a nice and easy way. Inhale and let your belly expand; exhale and let the air out. Do this three times. This will immediately reduce your stress level. While it may not erase your stress (remember, your mind and your spirit are also involved), it will go a long way in helping you stay calm. When you stop your breath your brain thinks you’re dying and your stress level goes off the charts.  Train yourself to keep your breath deep and steady throughout the test. I always advise students to write the word “Breathe” as a reminder on the top of the exam booklet or answer sheet. This is a powerful study technique as well.

The second tool is grounding. This involves simply feeling the chair and floor supporting you. While studying for an exam or taking one, you can get lost in your head and literally lose touch with where you are. Grounding helps you stay present.  Grounding also includes relaxing any tension in your body. Test stress can do weird things to your body. Your wrinkled brow or tense shoulders aren’t helping you answer questions. Let them go.

The third tool is sensing, which involves employing one of your senses to help you stay calm. During a test, it can be helpful to enlist your sense of touch. Feel the clothing on your body, feel the pencil in your hand, feel the weight of your arms on the desk.

As you can tell, the three tools for staying calm-breathing, grounding and sensing-are all designed to keep you present.  You know what they say at raffles: “You have to be present to win.” It’s the same with tests. Calm down and put yourself in the present. Then you can think, answer questions, say goodbye to stress, and have test success within your grasp.



Ben Bernstein, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and performance coach, He is the author of Test Success! How to Be Calm, Confident and Focused on Any Test  (Spark Avenue Publishing, 2012). www.testsuccesscoach.com.



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