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Remain Calm and Issue Spot: Dealing With Test Anxiety

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I turned 40 last weekend, which taps into myriad issues for most men: health, mortality, career satisfaction/accomplishments, having women in their 20’s thinking you’re the creepy uncle at the bar, etc. But rather than be bothered by those petty nuances of life, instead I’m going to focus on my recovery from a weekend of insanity with my best friend, Johnnie Walker Blue. I’m also going to turn to the best anti-depressant on Earth, altruism, and pass on some wisdom about test anxiety to help those of you in need.

Let’s assume you’re not one who suffers from the Dunning-Kruger Effect and you don’t overestimate your abilities. You have talent and brains, know your material come exam time, but actually suffer from real, certifiable test anxiety*: unusually rapid heart beat, sweating, shakiness, trouble concentrating, possibly some blurry vision and a clear disconnect between your knowledge of the material and your results. It feels horrific and seems hopeless. But all is not lost. Let’s look at your options.


Long-Term Solution: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

I know, I know. If you had the time, money and motivation to be in therapy you’d already be doing it and not getting your advice from law blogs. But remember this: CBT has a great track record for anxiety and it’s a commitment of usually a few months, not years like in traditional Freudian analysis. Good CBT therapists give you a psychological toolbox to deal with not just tests, but anxiety in the classroom, on the job, in your personal life. You probably won't think twice about buying study guides and prep books to get more information into your head, if therapy is what helps you get the information back out again then it's simply the next logical step. If grades ultimately relate to better career opportunities for you (e.g., more $$$), then consider it an extremely wise investment in your future. (And, unlike your student loans, unpaid bills for therapy sessions are dischargeable in bankruptcy.)


Short-Term Solution: Self-Help Book

Bite-sized and affordable, a good self-help book requires mostly just your time to put some of the wisdom to use. The bookstores are flooded with different titles and varying styles, but as long as you find one that takes a CBT approach (it should say so directly in the introduction or Table of Contents), you should be fine.

Okay, so I’ve given you two painfully obvious solutions to your problem (unless, of course, you’ve gotten a hold of Xanax or some other fast-acting, albeit habit-forming, drug to lower the Fight or Flight Response). If none of those are an option for you, consider this:


Very Short-Term Solution: The Two-Pronged Approach

Anxiety is your body’s signal that danger may be present. All of the symptoms (e.g., sweating, rapid heartbeat) are there as part of your Fight or Flight mechanism, which is designed to help protect you from danger. When I explain this to patients, many assume I refer to physical danger. But danger can be psychological. This is a hallmark phenomenon in public speaking: the danger is embarrassment, lack of approval and rejection from the audience. For test anxiety, the fear is around poor performance and the resulting punishment. So when it comes time to produce, the body perceives danger and prepares for it by changing its physical response. This is when a student starts to struggle.


1) Learn to Breath Correctly

By tinkering a bit with your breathing patterns, you can reduce a lot of the uncomfortable feelings and physiological responses:

Lie on your back. Slowly push your stomach outward as you take in air through your nose. Try to keep your chest flat as you picture the incoming air flowing through your body. Slowly count to four as your belly rises and gently push out the air through your mouth as your stomach comes to rest. Repeat for one minute or so and never more than five unless you are really enjoying the relaxation (otherwise it becomes a chore and, therefore, less likely to be practiced).

This will take at least some time to master, which is why I always recommend people do it every day. But as you engage in what is called Diaphragmatic Breathing (also known as Belly Breathing), your heart rate should drop, along with much of the anxiety. Breathing in this manner changes your physiology in a positive way and, with practice, will allow you to calm yourself down right at your desk while taking exams. Remember that practice is not optional; it’s mandatory because even though breathing is pretty much the first thing you learned to do once you were born, it's still a physical activity. It is more difficult to breath this way while sitting as opposed to lying down, and muscle memory takes some time to develop. If you're already prone to test anxiety, the middle of an exam is not the right time for you to try to remember your breathing techniques, they need to be habit.


2) Note Your Self-Talk

Anxiety isn’t just a bodily response. Your inner monologue is a critical component in how you feel. People with excessive anxiety tend to engage in what are known as Cognitive Distortions: statements that are often treated as fact but actually contain skewed logic. These thoughts are usually geared toward the worst possible outcome and also the inability to cope with bad results.

Sit down at your desk and simulate taking an exam. Note your inner monologue. Now this verbiage may, at first, come in shorthand:

Oh fuck!

I am so screwed.

Jesus Christ.

When that happens this about what this code really means:

I’ll never pass this test.

I’m always going to struggle.

If I don’t do well, it will be horrible/awful/unbearable/a catastrophe.

I’m a failure/loser/fuck up.

This is completely terrible and I can’t control it.

Note how absolute and final these statements are. They not only increase anxiety, damage focus and decrease performance, but they are also not entirely true. No one is a complete failure for struggling on tests, and rarely does a single exam (or even a series, for that matter) destroy a person’s life beyond repair. And one does, in fact, have some control over the situation. Note how the anxiety might change when some of the above statements are slightly modified:

It’s possible I won’t pass this test, that is true, but I do know the info. It’s possible my best may be enough.

I’m struggling, but it’s not likely to be permanent if I focus on my breathing.

If I do poorly on this test, I won’t allow it to be the end of the world. I’ll just make sure to get into some easy-A seminars 3L year.

If I label myself a failure, then I need to do so for everyone with test anxiety, and this is law school so odds are the majority of the class is freaking out. We can't possibly all be failures, the curve guarantees that won't happen.

Like Diaphragmatic Breathing, learning how to tinker with your thought process can take practice as well. Therefore, don’t wait until test day to learn how to do it. Start now and you may begin to notice a decrease in your anxiety.

Many of us have experienced the anguish associated with exams, whether it be in grade school, at the graduate level or somewhere in between. But if you’re the person I described at the beginning of this post (the smart person, not the creepy uncle), you owe it to yourself to get at least some help. Don’t believe that you’re stuck with this forever, it doesn’t have to be that way.

And with that, I’ll wish you good luck and begin my descent into middle age…

* Remember, mild to moderate anxiety is actually desirable. It usually improves performance, as it keeps you sharp and focused. ^

[Read more from Dr. Rob]


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