By : Kenneth
Date : 06-05-2020
Exam Anxiety: Can It Be Defeated?
Exams. At some point in our lives we have all been terrified of tests. Some of us still remain fearful at the thought of testing. The sight of exams on the calendar would send a shiver down our spines in primary school and as we progressed to the higher grades, exams and being tested started to feel familiar. Then boom, suddenly you are told there is going to be an important set of exams that “decide your future” and anything less than a high grade is equivalent to failure and a sign that the future will be tough. In Asia, the phrase “Results are out” is singularly responsible for hope, despair, dread or celebration among test takers. Exams are a matter of family pride and results can decide if your parents celebrate and show you off or cut you off entirely. Thus, it is fair to say that most people have issues when dealing with exams. Pressure from parents and teachers are a significant factor when it comes to performance in exams but a more talked about reason would be anxiety, exam anxiety to be specific.
Have you ever felt your mind ‘going blank’ during exams or found yourself thinking “I can’t do this” or “I’m stupid” or felt your heart racing and found it difficult to breath during exams? Anxiety will be ever-present in the course of preparing for tests and writing an exam. A moderate level of anxiety helps us perform optimally. Experiencing little or no anxiety can leave us feeling unfocused and unmotivated. Whereas, high levels of anxiety can tip us over into disorganization. The part that is usually difficult to judge is knowing when anxiety levels have crossed a certain threshold which is beyond our control which leads to the time-consuming process of managing the inhibiting anxiety.
Moshe Zeidner (1998) defined exam anxiety as a “combination of perceived physiological over-arousal, feelings of worry and dread, self-deprecating thoughts, tension and somatic symptoms that occur during test situations.” These symptoms are not necessarily dangerous but do divert focus when it is critical to be alert. Learning techniques such as deep breathing can help alleviate these symptoms.
Thoughts involved in exam anxiety mostly revolve around performance like “I’m going to fail”, “I can’t do this” or sensations such as “why is my heart racing”, “it’s impossible to concentrate”. To deal with such thoughts, it is good to challenge unhelpful thinking. Our thoughts are not always automatic and sometimes we do not seem to be aware of the impact it has on our feelings. Unhelpful thinking is mostly exaggerations or specific interpretations to feed your thoughts, in this case, negatively.
The first step to deal with it is becoming aware of such thinking and questioning it. If you identify these thoughts and just remind yourself that these are symptoms of arousal that can be managed, the anxiety could possibly be reduced. Dealing with unhelpful thinking is like being your own personal coach. Rather than undermining yourself, you should encourage yourself to yield the best results.
Another thing exam anxiety successfully does is shift our focus onto other things like what other students are doing or what would happen if we fail, rather than the task at hand (the exam). It’s not easy to focus when there are so many thoughts (negative) and feelings rushing through us. Instead of trying to alter thoughts at that moment, it may be more helpful to accept that such thoughts are going to be prevalent during this situation and shifting your attention back to studying. Mindfulness exercises help develop an attitude of acceptance and better focus. Mindfulness might simply be described as choosing and learning to control our focus of attention. Mindfulness does not conflict with any beliefs or traditions, whether religious, cultural or scientific. It is simply a practical way to notice thoughts, physical sensations, sights, sounds, smells – anything we might not normally notice (Zinn, 2015)
Being prepared and confident for the exam reduces anxiety. Studying early, prioritising study material and breaking down tasks into manageable chunks, attempting past papers or brainstorming possible exam questions and performing them under exam-like conditions are all ideal methods of preparation. In some cases, anxiety can lead to avoiding studying altogether. If sitting down to study makes you worry or feel anxious, then not studying can feel good in the short term. However, in the long run, all it does is eventually increase your anxiety in the exam hall.
A final tip on how to deal with exam anxiety is self care. Taking the time out to sleep, eat and balance studying with breaks is integral to performing well in exams. It might be hard to prioritise these things with important exams looming over you, but your brain requires fuel and rest to perform optimally. Caffeine and energy drinks tend to disrupt sleep patterns as well as mimic symptoms of anxiety and should be avoided while studying. Exercise and doing something you enjoy releases endorphins and helps manage the physical symptoms of anxiety/stress.
In conclusion, adequate preparation, identifying and replacing negative thoughts, practicing how to focus on one thing, learning skills and proper self-care will contribute to reducing exam anxiety. Practicing and integrating these tips can help manage your exam anxiety.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2015). Mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6(6), 1481-1483.
Zeidner, M. (1998). Test anxiety: The state of the art. Springer Science & Business Media.