First Aid for the Test Anxious
This material is for those with mild anxiety. If your symptoms interfere with your daily life in significant ways, please visit Counseling & Testing Services (270-745-3159), Potter Hall 409 or connect with them online at www.wku.edu/heretohelp/. The "Here to Help" section provides answers to questions anonymously over the Internet.
- Understanding Anxiety
Anxiety is a learned reaction to cope with a perceived threat.
The threat is usually nonspecific. (If the threat were specific, then we call it a "fear"). Anxiety involves a physical response, typically at least muscle tension, negative self-statements (such as "all or none" thinking; awfulizing), future-oriented thinking (e.g., my entire future will be horrid if...), and an anxious lifestyle (physical, mental, and social health affects anxiety).
Is anxiety "bad"? Not necessarily
You want an arousal level that is optimal for the task you are doing. If you are reading, a low level is optimal. If you are running from a tiger, a high level is optimal. This is called the Yerkes Dodson "Law," but it isn't actually a "law", it's more of a theory.
- Key Issues in Reducing Stress
Change unproductive stress/anxiety into productive energy. Change takes time. Change occurs unevenly. It is a very individual process so you must learn what works for you.
Step 1. Evaluate your Anxiety
What are your stress symptoms? Some of the most common symptoms of stress are headache, backache, muscle tension, upset stomach, and sweaty palms. The first step toward solving a problem is assessment so you know the nature and severity of the problem. The Mayo Clinic also provides a free stress assessment at http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress-assessment/SR00029, to help you measure your stress level.
Which types of exams are creating anxiety for you? The least?
Arrange them into a hierarchy from least to most anxiety arousing.
If you talked to others, you'd find variation. For example, some despise essay, others prefer them. Some like multiple choice, others tremble at them. Some prefer history-type tests, others math-type tests. On the discussion board feel free to share what type of tests you most dislike or prefer and ask others to report theirs.
The Test Experience
The test experience can be thought of in three parts:
- Pre-test period
- Test period
- Post-test period (and even subdivided further if it makes sense for you)
What portions of the test experience are least to most anxiety arousing for you?
Again, there is variation, some aren't anxious until the test is over; some calm down once the test begins. What is your pattern?(Notice, this is ever more detailed assessment. As the problem is defined or assessed, it becomes more manageable).
Step 2: Learn to Deal with Anxiety
Start with low stress situations. As you have success with anxiety reduction skills, move on to slightly more anxiety-arousing situations.
You reduce anxiety by "nibbling around the edges"-- learning to handle the easier situations first.
Do all of the following suggestions. A common error is to make a half-hearted effort with one technique and then to quit when it doesn't work. Reducing anxiety requires an across the board approach.
You must unlearn habits and that takes effort. Expect it to take a while. Expect to stumble.
A common error is to think you should never "slip back" but "slipping" is normal. Learning is not a smooth process. Stumbling is not a problem if you learn something from stumbling.
First, don't do anything to worsen the anxiety.
Evaluate yourself and different situations. What do you do that makes it worse? How can you stop or replace those behaviors?
Your goal is enough anxiety to perform optimally but not too much, typically, that's a low level.
How can you prevent test anxiety?
Avoid unproductive self-labels (e.g., "Anxious person," "Don't test well," "A failure")Substitute productive ones (e.g., "I care about school," "I'm passionate")Prepare for the examAre you studying effectively not merely studying "hard"? Amount of studying does make a difference (read and re-read) but quality of effort also has an impact. There are many sites with study skill suggestions. Keep learning about how to study. (I'm still learning!)How can you improve your reading skills? Visit http://edtech.tph.wku.edu/~ppetty/collegereading.htm scroll down about halfway and look at row of links starting "Students: Volume".
Time management: The goal is reasonableness in your use of time. When/where are you most effective at managing your time so you aren't cramming?Physical Health. Athletes train, so can you. Your physical health (sleep, nutrition) affects your concentration.Set reasonable goals. It takes time to change a grade a whole letter level...generally you get a few points with each innovation.Use test feedback. Look at your returned exams and profit from them. Look for patterns in what you did ineffectively --do you do worse on the middle chapters? or the ones studied longest ago? or the most recent set? Then devote more time to them.
Be realistic: If you want a different grade next time, you have to do something differently. Research finds that people who end up getting a D or F in the course always think they'll pull it out next time, even when, by the math, it is impossible to do so.Being realistic also applies in positive directions as well. Some very good but very anxious students never appreciate what they have actually accomplished because they worry so about the next exam. Seeking excellence is different from seeking perfection. The former is do-able, the later is impossible for a human.Seek to enjoy what you are studying. It is hard to be anxious when having fun. Use the anxiety as energy. Make studying a game, connect it to a hobby (e.g., illustrate your notes if you like to draw; Consider how the course material could enhance your fishing or crafting). Everything is interconnected in this world. Take it as a challenge to apply what you know and love to new material.
Step 3: Learn Active Coping Skills
Goal: Catch anxiety at the lowest level and moderate it. Try to interrupt the vicious cycle and build a virtuous cycle instead.
What are some ways to cope with tension once it begins?
Know thyself: Identify your early signs of stress and start practicing prevention techniques before it gets bad.
Moderate your muscle tension by using the following techniques:
- Take a mental vacation: Imagine you are in a relaxing place with no people present. (People are stressors, even people we like).
- Practical Relaxation: Try placing your feet flat on the floor, your hands in your lap, your back and head straight, but not rigid. Inhale slowly through your nose to the count of 5 (a slow count) hold for 10 count. (Notice the muscle tension in chest, etc). Exhale through mouth for a 10 count (twice as long as you inhale.) (Notice the feeling of relaxation in the formerly tense muscles.) Repeat with your eyes closed and noises, distractions eliminated.
- Mental coping using the techniques of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. REBT says stress happens from the following steps (notice the words that spell out A-B-C-D):There is an Activating event (e.g., an exam is announced.)You have an irrational Belief. This is an implicit, typically reflexive or unconscious value, identifiable by the words "should," "ought," "must".
For example, "I must do well on the exam or it would be terrible!". This belief is irrational because it assumes you can know the future. It is also irrational because in life you don't have to do anything but die-- all else is optional (even paying taxes). (Yes, there are consequences to all choices and some consequences are less pleasant in general, but it is still a choice.)The Consequence is you feel anxious.If you can Dispute the belief (e.g., "It would be nice to make an A, but a lower grade won't literally kill me. It might be unpleasant but I won't be dead.") then you can relieve the anxiety. Beliefs and effective Disputing statements are very individual. The disputing sentence has to make sense to you.
Remember stress is normal. The goal is to manage it for the optimal level.It takes time to unlearn habits.Learn from stress experiences what works/what doesn't.Practice.If you need more help: Counseling & Testing Services (3159), Potter 409 or visit them online at www.wku.edu/heretohelp/.
Created January 10, 1999: Last Modified: January 21, 2011. All contents © Sally Kuhlenschmidt.
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