First grade, the earliest I can recall is the feeling of a flood of overwhelming thoughts and body sensations. First grade was when it all started, timed math tests and pop spelling quizzes. Even in my youthful brain, I had racing thoughts, self-criticism, and negative self-talk and butterflies in my stomach, both before and during the exam. Eventually, tears would run out of the inner corner of my eyes because of my fear of failing the test. I knew all of the material… it was information I was able to verbalize to anyone who’d ask. I had studied my heart out days before. Despite this, it happened over and over and over again. I was embarrassed and ashamed. It was a never-ending cycle.
And no, my parents never pushed me to be perfect. My mother and father always stated, “We just want you to do your best.” However, my inner thoughts during each exam made me question, “What if I didn’t pass?” At times, this negatively affected my ability to complete or pass a quiz as I would over-analyze a question to the point I just decided to guess the answer – whatever I needed to do to avoid and reduce the uncomfortable feelings
Year after year, this continued, but over time I learned how to manage more effectively. After college, I thought I was in luck, no more exams for me. Boy, was I fooling myself! I had entered a profession (Social Work) where certifications were required to maintain employment. To achieve the certifications, I had to complete an exam… a timed exam. My anxiety was stronger than ever as it came with the pressures to pass the exam to maintain my current, comfortable income.
Our society is a “test culture.” We are regularly judged by our ability to regurgitate information and perform well on an exam. This form of scrutiny leads to anxiety in individuals, often resulting in test anxiety. There are many forms of anxiety. As a diagnosed disorder, anxiety is a common mental health condition for many in the United States. Because one of the hallmark symptoms of anxiety is fear and worry, individuals like myself go to great lengths to avoid triggers. Avoidance is most likely due to so many of the signs of anxiety being physiological experiences, such as increased heart rate, nausea, and heavy perspiration, which are all extremely uncomfortable.
Over the last several years, I’ve had to function through two professional exams effectively. I had to come up with simple yet creative ways to maintain my focus throughout the process of studying and taking the exams. Here are some personal tips I’ve applied to manage my test anxiety throughout the years.
The foundation of all relationships is communication. No one can respond to or understand your experience if you don’t communicate. Growing up, I communicated with my parents, who then communicated with the schools and faculty to find more appropriate ways for me to complete an exam.
All the following tips are steps I took to address the problem directly for myself.
Find A Support or Study Group
Seek study groups to understand the information better and to become more aware that you are not alone in this. Many individuals who participate in study groups also experience test anxiety. Plus, group members often encourage one another. The group’s encouragement helped me to challenge and reframe the negative self-talk that often arises with test anxiety.
Write it down
Before taking or at the beginning of the test, write down the following information:
- Keywords and phrases
- Words with their definitions
- Concepts and phrases that were difficult to recall throughout your study
My anxiety increased as I became more and more critical of my ability to pass the exam. This thought pattern needed to be challenged throughout the exam.
Here’s what worked for me:
- Write down positive affirmations such as:
- “I can do this!”
- “I’ve studied well for this exam!”
- “I know all of the information requested of me.”
- “Slow down, just think it through.”
- Include the encouraging words my study group provided to me as well.
- Throughout the test, I reviewed the positive affirmations.
When a question became too difficult or when I caught myself over-analyzing, I began to scribble on my scrap paper. I drew circles and flowers and simply focused on them until I was able to slow down and review the question for what it is.
I spoke to a professional about what I was experiencing. Even as a mental health professional myself, I needed additional support. That is ok!
Why do I recommend a counselor? A counselor offers an unbiased, judgment-free, compassionate, and supportive dialogue to help you explore the thought process, which is leading to test anxiety. Furthermore, you and your counselor can come up with creative ways to improve your functioning and reduce your anxiety during the exam. Your counselor can advocate for you and may have access to resources to help reduce anxiety during the test. Best of all, whatever you share with your counselor is confidential.
Self-compassion, understanding, and advocacy is the key to functioning through test anxiety. For a long time, I thought I was alone in this. I’ve tried all of the above techniques, and I have noticed a transformation in the way I function during my exams. I acknowledge these experiences, as test anxiety is very real.
Overcoming test anxiety is not easy, but neither is the energy and negative self-talk we place on ourselves with each exam. I cannot say the anxiety will completely subside. What I can say is, you have more control than you think. Don’t let test anxiety override your education. Work on ways to function through the ride.
About the Author: Reynelda Jones(founder of A Solution B) is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor, and Acupuncture Detoxification specialist. She specializes in stress, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder in women and families, combining traditional talk therapy with evidence-based holistic approaches towards mental health.
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The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.
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