Does test taking make you feel anxious?  You’re not alone.  I’m here to tell you that there are things you can do to reduce the anxious feelings you get when staring at a test or when you’re just thinking about the test and experience those same feelings. 

Anxiety is an emotion. Emotions are like the ingredients we use in making a soup–we have many ingredients blending  together at the same time and some ingredients are stronger than others. So, whether we like to admit it or not, our emotions are always with us and depending on their purpose and the context, they can either serve or help us stay stuck. 

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we can have a mixture of emotions going off at the same time. Anger, sadness or frustration  at the loss of a face-to-face school semester, a friend or loved one, fear from not knowing what tomorrow will bring; perhaps joy and excitement brought to us by innovative technology which unites us via Zoom and makes our world smaller again through connection and sharing. And wondering or fearing whether you’ll make it into your top college of choice or maybe even into the next grade. 

When I experience physical anxiety, it’s as if I’ve had too much coffee or Coke or Pepsi and I can feel my blood rushing through my veins. And, I feel every physical pain that my body has to offer. What I tell myself is the answer to what my body is experiencing chemically.

I can also look at anxiety as an emotion, similar to fear. In both cases, we are worried about something. In the case of anxiety though, the source of the worry is not known. CoVid and the unknown about school or test taking in general can produce this anxiety. 

The reaction is not only felt emotionally, but it can appear on our face as facial expressions or the contraction of our bodies. 

Anxiety closes us off from others and our body may react by moving away or hunching or tightening our shoulders. Our eyebrows may appear furrowed. The purpose of anxiety is to serve as a warning that in the future something or someone may harm us, in this case CoVid and its consequences.  Anxiety appears in our language as well. “I’m not good at taking tests.” “I always have the wrong answers when I raise my hand in class.”  This creates a belief system of not being good enough, and if not changed, it can carry through alot of our actions and stop us from being good at test taking or “doing school.”

When we are in wonder, on the other hand, we are open to others and to experiences. “It’s amazing or it’s awesome” are words we would probably use when seeing a beautiful waterfall or mountain range or sunset. Our breath may stop and we become wide-eyed, head up and our chests full. 

Wonder connects us with the power of the universe and serves to connect us to the present.  It can bring us to the power of the moment. This is what is needed in order to

be better students and more confident test takers. 

So how can we shift an emotion like anxiety into wonder?

The key to being a confident test taker is to practice–practice your test taking techniques and develop other practices that shift our emotions, our language or a more open body posture. These will help to move you to a mastery of test taking and learning, or at least make you act more comfortably. 

1) Practice Test Taking Techniques 

The only way to get to Carnegie Hall is practice, practice, practice, as the old saying goes. Vince Lombardi, the famed football coach spoke of ‘perfect’ practice makes perfect.” Practice taking sample tests for ACT and other tests. Look for patterns in the questions being asked. It may only be one type of question that is throwing you off. If that’s the case, increase your score by learning how to solve that problem. 

2) Examine Whether You Are Being a Friend or Enemy of Learning 

Chalmers Brothers in Language and the Pursuit of Happiness identified the good habits of learning that can help you succeed. These include:

  • Being open to learning
  • A mood of curiosity and inquiry 
  • Being willing to admit “I don’t know” (“and I’m willing to learn”)
  • Listening 
  • Practice 

Enemies of Learning, on the other hand, include saying things such as, “I don’t have time to learn,”  “I can’t learn” and “No one can teach me.” 

The development of the ability and the attitude to learn will serve you well beyond test-taking in school and will influence your success throughout life. 

3) Shift your Emotion from Anxiety to Wonder 

We can hold more than one emotion at the same time. So, even in anxiety I can start to look at things–mountains, sunset, a body of water or I can see pictures of them and ask: “how did it come to be?” 

Anxiety refers to a future unknown. Wonder is grounded in the moment. I can breathe deeply and focus on my breath and the now. Prayer and meditation would also bring me into the here and now. 

I can move; I can shake off the anxiety; I can dance to bring me to a new place and a new feeling within my body. 

I can develop a ritual practice of listening to music and doing some deep breathing before I take the test. 

I can shift the conversation in my head or what I’m telling others. To switch to wonder I would ask myself (or someone else), “I wonder what would happen if I …”  My body posture would be one of openness and curiosity. 

In summary, whether you are the student or the parent of the student, these are skills and practices that can be useful to reduce anxiety in any situation and lead to more confidence and success.  

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Jewel Ray Chaudhuri, Ph.D., founder of Revisioning My Life, helps women who are struggling with career burnout or boredom use their inner power to create lives that bring them freedom, balance, and joy—on their own terms.