Everyone feels anxious about tests. There are cases, however, in which a vicious cycle emerges whereby test anxiety becomes extreme, the student cannot prepare for the exam because of that anxiety, and he or she then becomes even more anxious. In the worst case, a student may declare defeat before the exam is even held and abandon the exam to escape from the pain of that growing anxiety. Anxiety on which this vicious cycle is based is referred to as “test anxiety.”
Students who visit the Student Support Center often include those showing symptoms of test anxiety. Here, we present a general introduction, as support to deepen understanding of test anxiety, break the vicious cycle, and approach tests constructively.
After the Exams Period Has Ended
Most people who suffer from test anxiety become anxious as the exams period approaches, but their anxiety leaves once the exams period has ended. Worries disappear over long holidays and regular class terms, and they generally become completely normal.
As the proverb says, “You forget the heat once it passes your throat.” Because the anxiety leaves after the exams period is over, many people take no countermeasures and wind up facing the next exams period with anxiety once again, repeating the same pattern. When the exams period has ended and the anxiety is gone, they conversely make every effort not to think about exams. Although they have concerns, they wind up putting off countermeasures.
By way of example, people who have a fear of flying suffer no anxiety whatsoever when they are not on an airplane. Yet that does not mean their condition has been cured. This is because they will almost certainly suffer anxiety again, the next time they get on an airplane. With just the faint hope that “I may be cured,” there is no guarantee such a condition will cure itself without taking active measures. That is a very risky approach.
It is at those very times when you feel no anxiety that you should take countermeasures to deal with test anxiety.
Keep a Medium-Level of Anxiety
Speaking in general, anxiety is useful. It is exactly because we feel anxiety that human beings have survived for so long. Anxiety is a signal which warns you that “This is an important moment” or “You need to get ready.” It is also an emotion which functions as motivation, driving us to take action to prepare.
Nevertheless, when anxiety exceeds a certain level, it prevents us from performing. And that is the problem.
Having anxiety itself is not the problem. While anxiety is unpleasant, it is an important companion in life.
Therefore, working to eliminate anxiety is not the goal. People who suffer from test anxiety and other anxiety problems often think that feeling anxiety is wrong and bad, and try to reduce their anxiety to zero. Ironically, however, such goal-setting often becomes one cause that increases anxiety even more.
It is simply unreasonable to reduce your anxiety level to zero before an exam. Understand it is OK that you feel anxious. The anxiety is helping you. That is the message you need to hear.
Next, we consider countermeasures to be taken when anxiety exceeds that level.
Discover the Irrational Beliefs that Amplify Your Anxiety
(Rational emotive behavior therapy type approach)
In a sense, becoming anxious because you are facing an important exam is only natural. Everyone becomes anxious. Not becoming anxious for an important exam is impossible. Anxiety is a signal to let you know that “This is important” and “You have to make solid preparations,” and a useful emotion which provokes you to take suitable action. For that reason, not becoming anxious for an important exam is impossible. Despite that, most people make effective use of their anxiety and progress using anxiety as a tail wind. They are not wrecked by extreme anxiety. So, where does that difference come from?
Even when faced with the same event, the same feeling does not automatically arise among all people, at all times. This means that the event (exams) does not directly produce the emotion (anxiety). Different feelings can arise from the same event, depending on how the event is interpreted.
A. “Exams measure my value as a human being. If I fail the exam, it means I am a failure.”
A. “Failing the exam means the teacher hates me.”
A. “I always have to shine at the top. If I do not, it means I have no value, and that would be unbearable.”
B.“I would like nothing better than to do well on the exam. But even if I don’t, I can accept the results. For now, I will just do my best so it will go well.”
B.“Exams are just a rather crude measure to check your understanding of the subject. Failing an exam has nothing to do with my humanity, and passing an exam does not mean I am a superior person. My humanity begins from my own self-recognition.”
B.“I am happy to be at the top. For me, that is a very strong feeling. But I do not need to always be at the top, and if I do not get the top score I accept the results as they are.”
If you strongly hold on to beliefs (interpretative schemes) like A, exams will naturally cause a great deal of anxiety. If you have extreme test anxiety, it is highly likely you are holding some sort of beliefs about the event of taking exams that heighten your anxiety. Take a look and find what types of beliefs lie in the background of your own anxiety. The first step is to gain a clear self-awareness of those beliefs. Such beliefs are generally unconscious. They are unconscious because they are so natural to you, and they are unconscious because you are engulfed in anxiety. So, you need to calmly look hard at yourself, and write down what you find.
You have to keep doing this until you can write down those beliefs for which you are convinced that “As long as I hold this belief, it is only natural that I will feel extreme anxiety before exams.”
Some people can identify such beliefs by themselves, but this may be difficult for others. In such cases, it may be helpful to speak with someone you trust and have them provide assistance. If it is not easy to find such a person, our counselors will help.
When you find such a belief, you need to take a long, hard look at it.
Once you write it down, look at it objectively, as it was a note left there, written by someone you do not even know.
Now, read that belief aloud. What sort of voice is appropriate? What sort of feelings do you have when you read it using different voices? Try using all types of voices: a high-pitched voice, a low-pitched voice, a harsh voice, a kind voice, a sleepy voice, a voice of someone of the same sex, a voice of someone of the opposite sex, a shrill voice, a nasal voice.
Write down that belief using the hand you do not normally write with. Then, take a look at it.
Write a scenario in which someone voices that belief. Have various people speak various opinions about that person. Become a playwright, and try to write an interesting script.
Well, does it feel entirely natural and right for you to hold on to that belief? It is like your longtime partner. And so, you probably want to keep holding on to it. That is normal. If that is what you really want to do, you can. That is your own free choice. But please consider carefully if you really want to continue holding that belief.
Accept the Thoughts that Trigger Anxiety
(Acceptance and commitment therapy type approach)
The following is a list of the thoughts that arise in the minds of people who feel strong test anxiety when they become anxious. What types of thoughts and images make you anxious? Please look back at them carefully. When identifying those thoughts, it is important to be as specific and detailed as possible. The following descriptions are just for reference. What is important is to clarify the thoughts and images that make you anxious.
1. Worries about Performance
- I should have studied more!
- I won’t be able to write a proper answer anyway.
- My brain doesn’t work. I can’t remember anything.
2. Worries about Unpleasant Physical Reactions
(Continued anxiety can result in actual physical symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, headache, and stiffness in the shoulders. The following list shows secondary anxiety regarding physical conditions that arises as a result of anxiety).
- I am afraid I am going to have a stomachache. Am I getting a stomachache?
- My stomach hurts. (I wonder if it’s going to get worse. / I am not normal).
- I am starting to have a horrible sweat. (People will think I’m weird. / I am not normal).
- My hands are shaking. (People will think I’m weird. / I am not normal).
- Normally, I should not have these kinds of physical conditions.
3. Worries about Comparison with Others
- Everyone else does this better than me.
- I am the worst student in this class.
- I am the only one who has these kinds of problems.
4. Worries about Negative Results
- If I fail this exam, I cannot keep living.
- If I fail this exam, I will have to repeat a year.
- If I fail this exam, I will not be able to advance to graduate school.
- If I fail this exam, I cannot graduate.
- If I fail this exam, my family will be disappointed.
- If I fail this exam, the teacher will be disappointed.
- If I fail this exam, I will be looked down on.
When such thoughts (or specific images which embody them) come to mind, most people will reflexively try to eliminate them. They think of other things, concentrate on music, watch a video or DVD, or run around outside. While the specific contents of these behaviors differ, they all have the same function. It is to take attention away from the thoughts or images that spark the anxiety. Sometimes efforts at frantically focusing on studies can also fulfill the same function.
Such efforts sometimes do have a short-term effect, but generally do not succeed over the longer term. That is, efforts to eliminate thoughts that spark anxiety tend, on the contrary, to make those thoughts arise even more persistently time and again.
Are you making efforts to eliminate some thoughts or images that spark anxiety? If so, what sort of effects are you achieving from those efforts? Start by checking the effects. If the effects are not as you desire, you might consider stopping those efforts.
Ceasing efforts to shake off thoughts that trigger anxiety does not mean becoming obsessed with those thoughts, or drowning in them, or being immersed in them. It means maintaining the state of awareness called “mindfulness.”
Mindfulness is a complex concept. It comprises the following three main factors.
- Continuously place your attention in the here and now
- Cognitive defusion (Do not lose yourself in thoughts and images)
- Acceptance (Accept what is: do not try to control)
1. Place Attention Here and Now
Most human anxieties and troublesome thoughts concern the past and the future, that is, they do not concern what is happening here in the present moment. They are created in the human mind using its abundant linguistic abilities and imagination. In contrast, the basis of the state of mindfulness is to place attention here and now.
The most popular approach to this is to focus your attention on your breathing. This does not mean to control your breathing, or to think about your breathing. It means to simply pay attention to your breathing, and feel it. Like watching the waves flowing back and forth at the shore, fully feel your breathing anew. Feel that you are relaxed, enjoying each new breath, one breath after another.
2. Cognitive Defusion (Do not lose yourself in thoughts and images)
As human beings, the linguistic and imaginative activities that automatically occur in our minds create our subjective worlds. When we read a book or watch a movie, we can completely forget our present surroundings and lose ourselves in the world of the story. When we use that same ability to think that there will be an exam next week, imagine the scene of the exam even though the exam is a week from now, and enter that world, the heart begins to pound and the hands start to shake. This is not a direct reaction to the present reality, but rather a reaction to falling into the world of thoughts and imagination. That is called “cognitive fusion.”
Even when we lose ourselves in a film at the movie theater, if the person sitting next to us spills coffee, we immediately wake up to the reality there. We realize that we have been lost in the world of the movie, recognize the movie theater seating, and also recognize the world of the move on the screen. This is referred as “cognitive defusion.”
There may be times when you become lost in an anxious daydream brought about by various anxious thoughts that automatically arise in your head. When you become aware of this, however, that moment is cognitive defusion. Realizing, “Oh, I was thinking about failing the exams again” is cognitive defusion. After that realization, some keep indulging in those thoughts, but you can use it as an opportunity to achieve cognitive defusion to turn the attention to the breath (the here and now), and to maintain cognitive defusion. Having and then maintaining cognitive defusion from the thoughts that triggered the anxiety can help you become free from test anxiety.
3. Acceptance (Accept what is: do not try to control)
Even after bringing attention to the present and having cognitive defusion, various thoughts may still arise one after another. Various emotions may arise as well, and you may feel various sensations. So, let them be as they are. Allow those feelings as they are. They are also a part of the here and now. But feel them without cognitive fusion. While keeping your attention on the breath, allow the feelings to be as they arise, and simply observe them: “Hmm, there is a feeling of anxiety around the chest;” “The exams scheme has popped up;” “Ah, the thoughts of anxiety have come up once again.”
Just let those unpleasant thoughts and feelings be as they are, without trying to push them away, and also without indulging in them.
Even when you try this, there may be times when you realize you have fallen back into your thoughts once again. That is entirely normal. When that happens, the moment you notice that it happens, at the instant of cognitive defusion, just say goodbye to those thoughts and return your attention to the breath.