Overcoming Test Anxiety: A Guide for the Panicked

What is Test Anxiety Like?

Frightened eyes representing test anxiety.

Your stomach tightens, your palms get sweaty, your heart pounds like an animal trapped in your chest, and you start to feel lightheaded and queasy. As you walk into the classroom, you wonder if you’re going to faint on the way to your seat. It’s only 5 feet, you can make it. Then, you can collapse in your chair and pass out quietly so as to not disturb the other students. At least then you won’t have to think about the test anymore. Small mercies for someone with test anxiety.

Wait? Graduate Students Get Test Anxiety?

Yes, they do. Many have had it all their lives, but it has kicked into high gear with graduate school. For some, it’s a new development as the stakes have risen in the pressure cooker of graduate studies. For all, it’s a miserable experience that can short-circuit the brain, hijack memory, and leave smart people staring listlessly at a piece of paper that suddenly seems to be written in Klingon.

What Can I do About it?

There are several steps you can take to make test anxiety better. I won’t lie, it’s not a miracle cure, it takes effort and the anxiety isn’t going to magically disappear, but there are things you can do to make it manageable and less disruptive to your time in graduate school.

Realize that you are not alone. Test anxiety can be isolating. While it’s normal for students to be a bit anxious when a test comes around, most don’t reach the point where their anxiety is getting in the way. However, just because you don’t see another student experiencing test anxiety, doesn’t mean they aren’t. I’ve worked with students who have been on academic probation due to their test anxiety, who have had to retake 4 out of 5 qualifying exams, and one even had to repeat the entire first year of their program because of test anxiety. I myself burst into tears and couldn’t speak during the oral qualifying exams for my master’s degree. You are not alone and just knowing that can make it a little bit better.

Tell someone. Now that you’ve realized that you are not the only one, it’s time to tell someone what you are going through. No one can help you if they don’t know what is going on and instructors often don’t recognize the signs of test anxiety in their students. Tell your advisor or a trusted faculty member and see if you can talk with someone in your student support/learning center. If your anxiety has gotten bad enough to interfere with your ability to pass tests or you’re suffering silently before each exam, it might be time to talk to a professional. Now is not the time to suffer in silence.

Understand your lizard brain. Our brains are amazing, fascinating creatures, but they are also kind of stupid. Your fear response is overreacting to the threat it perceives the test to be. Instead of a minor inconvenience that is a bit stressful, your brain is interpreting the test to be a battle to the death, where they’ll execute you for one wrong answer. You know logically that this is not true, but try convincing your feelings that they’re wrong…logic usually loses. If it were that easy to change feelings, you wouldn’t be reading this article. The problem is that by attempting to fight against the anxiety, you can make it worse. Imagine the scenario: you have a big test coming up, you’re starting to feel anxious but you realize that the anxiety is illogical, so you tell your feelings to shut up and knock it off. Still, you’re anxious and uncomfortable so you tell yourself a little louder – THERE’S NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT SO SHUT UP! Still, you are anxious and now you are agitated at being anxious, which just amplifies the whole thing because you are even more worked up than before. Fighting your feelings is a losing battle. And really, you don’t have to fight them. The feeling of anxiety is unpleasant. It’s very uncomfortable. We want to avoid it, but why? It’s just a feeling. The feeling itself won’t kill you. You have survived this anxiety before. It’s just a chemical reaction in your brain that you can ride out like a wave. Test anxiety is not permanent, you can even predict the pattern as it grows, crests, and lets out. The next time you are in a stressful situation, take a moment to observe those feelings in yourself as they come and go and you survive. The point isn’t to stop the anxiety, it’s to realize that you don’t have to get worked up over feeling the anxiety.

Challenge cognitive distortions. Once you stop fighting the feelings it becomes easier to dissect the thoughts you are having that are amplifying the anxiety. There are a number of cognitive missteps that might be making things worse. Really, they are little lies we tell ourselves without even realizing it. Things like “Failing this test means I’m a failure,” “If I fail this test everyone will know I’m not good enough to be here,” or “If I can’t do this, I’ll have wasted all my time and money and I’ll end up in a flophouse in Duluth”.  When you are wrapped up in anxiety, you don’t always register these thoughts going through your mind but I assure you they are there. If you can identify these thoughts, then you can counter them with logic. Like, “Failing this test means that I failed this test. Nothing more. I am not a failure as a person.” “If I fail this test, I will be in good company. Many people have failed tests in graduate school and gone on to do great things. It doesn’t mean that I don’t belong here.” Challenging thoughts is easier than challenging feelings.

Want to learn more about cognitive distortions and how to change them? Check out this great article and worksheet.

Cognitive Distortions: When Your Brain Lies to You – Positive Psychology
A hand holds a pencil marked "inhale" and "exhale" to represent test anxiety.

Become more tolerant of discomfort. Sitting with, and not getting wrapped up in anxiety is a vital part of overcoming test anxiety. Like I said before, it’s normal that a testing situation is a bit stressful. A lot of the problems in test anxiety come from being anxious about being anxious and the worry that it will interfere with your ability to succeed at the test. The more you can be ok with being anxious, the less it will hijack your ability to retrieve and process information. Meditation is a tool that can allow you to step back from the uncomfortable sensation of anxiety, realize that it’s just a feeling that has no power over you, and help you get down to business. However, meditation is a skill that needs to be developed during times of lower stress, so that you can employ it during times of higher stress. Just 10 minutes a day can help you build the skills you need to reduce test anxiety and it has a lot of other benefits as well. If you are interested in learning to meditate, there are tons of resources out there. The book “Just Sit: A Meditation Guidebook for People Who Know They Should But Don’t” is a wonderful introduction, as is the Headspace App (which has a free introductory module you can repeat as often as you like), and Mindful Org has lots of free resources.

Recognize Triggers. Everyone is different so it’s important to be introspective about the things that make your test anxiety worse. By themselves, none of these approaches will solve test anxiety, but every step you take can put you closer to the tipping point that minimizes its impact. Some approaches that my clients have taken include:

  • Wearing earplugs to reduce distractions. The client became hyper-aware of sounds around them when anxious and so earplugs helped them focus.
  • Avoiding waiting with other students for the test to start. A client became aware that waiting at the door to the classroom with the other students made them more anxious as they picked up on the stress of others. The client decided to wait away from the other students for the classroom to open up.
  • Cover the clock. A client taking exams in a remote learning environment found themselves constantly looking at the clock, so they put a Post-it over the clock to stop the distraction.
  • Moving and reading out loud. A client who had the opportunity to take the exam in a separate room found that reading the questions out loud and getting up and moving helped to short-circuit the anxiety.
  • Avoiding emotionally charged media before the test. Another client found that avoiding things that left them emotionally changed on test days helped to reduce their baseline anxiety, so when it did rise it was from a lower level to start with. They had been using Facebook to distract them while waiting for the exam but changed to a puzzle game instead.

Care less. The more you care about the test, the more invested you are. The more invested you are, the more anxious you will become. Realize that this test is one small bump in the road. Pass, fail, no matter what happens, you will adjust and adapt and learn from it. Even if this test is your last chance to stay in the program, it’s still not a matter of life or death. It would be disappointing to be forced to leave graduate school, but it’s not the end of the world. In fact, I bet if you thought about it, you could even find reasons why that wouldn’t be all bad. It’s a paradoxical truth that the less you care about the outcome of the test, the better you will perform.  It’s natural to want to pass. You’ve invested a lot to get here, but it’s important to recognize that this test is not the end-all and be-all of your life.

Wishing You the Best in Your Academic Success,
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach

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