How to Ditch Test Anxiety by Calming Your Nerves and Going Positive

(Psst–this is Part 3 in a 4-part series on overcoming test anxiety.)

Enlist the support of your mind and body in your new Test Slaying Team and walk into your next exam like you own the place.

In our last post, we talked about the external reasons your head might not be helping your exam game and how to shift your mindset about exam outcomes. Hopefully you’re becoming pretty masterful at re-framing and overcoming concerns about exam consequences as they pop up in your mind.

Now, we’re going inside.

Because you’ll forever be fighting a losing battle until you get your internal mindset and nervous system on your exam crushing team.

Have you ever felt totally prepared for a test, but when you showed up to the exam, you looked at a problem and blanked out? Maybe you felt your heart racing, your breathing quickening, and your mind having difficulty focusing. This is the inside that we’re talking about.

Essentially, how you feel and thoughts about a situation affects your ability to cognitively process (aka your thinking power) and your physical state. In turn, your physical state (such as your heart rate and stress hormone levels) affect your ability to think.

Quickly, for body geeks out there-W00T!–when we feel anxious, the HPA axis (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, responsible for our stress response) gets fired up and spews out a bunch of hormones, most notably the stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol sets our brain up for fight or flight and has a bunch of unhelpful effects like impeding memory and recall, hindering learning, and disrupting synapse communication. You know, all that stuff we don’t really want happening in our brain during an exam.

We ideally want to sidestep this whole cascade of stress hormones from happening come test time. And should anxiousness arise, we want to have the tools to work through it, so our brains can focus on the exam instead.

You can shift your anxiety from the inside.

Here are our tried and true ways to squelch anxiety that we’ve tested on thousands of students. Trust us, you aren’t the one hopeless one who has different body circuitry.

A fair warning: internal work can sometimes seem hokey, but if you’re reading this you really have nothing to lose. So let’s shift this limiting pattern together pronto so you can get on with your capable self.

1Re-frame the test

Your test anxiety might very well have to do with how you view your exam. Instead of thinking of exams as some impossible hurdle you’re sure to nut yourself on when you try to jump over and pre-wince at the inevitable pain, re-frame it as a doable hurdle that will show how majestically you can jump over objects standing in your way. Ta-dah!

You can do this. You’re prepped and ready for this exam. (And if you legitimately aren’t—check out our Courses for tried-and-true exam strategies and course-specific content.) If you’ve made it this far to be in engineering school, you’re brilliant in our book. Perfect doesn’t exist, and you are good enough, friend.

And if you can’t muscle the strength to take this test now for whatever reason, you can surely regroup and do it later if you really want to. Do-overs are totally real, even if it means you have to stay an extra term or circle back around. Whoever said life is linear hasn’t truly lived.

2Highlight what’s right

This is an old school trick that reboots your mind in positive mode. (Life coach, anyone?) Essentially, you think about or write a list of all the things that are going right for your exam. Your list might look like this:

  • The exam has my ideal start time and in my favorite room

  • I am a rock star at calculus so I don’t have to worry about math(s)

  • I know free body diagrams like the back of my hand

  • I’m wearing my lucky shirt

The reason this Highlight What’s Right approach has staying power is because whatever path your mind goes, your reality tends to follow. Like attracts like.

You worry nonstop about failing, wasting a ton of time and energy in the process, and–wah-wah–failure.

You focus on how awesome your skills at manipulating exponents are and your confidence soars when you encounter a problem with exponents on your Heat Transfer exam because it’s rad…iation. (Sorry, no more Stefan-Botzmann equation jokes. Pinky swear.)

The point is, when you forget about the butt load of stuff you know and how great you really are at this student fiasco, it eats up your confidence and takes you down with your thoughts. Instead, focus on your strengths and free up grey matter.

3Relax your nerves

Speaking of optimum brain functioning, you’re brain is optimal when your nervous system is nice and calm. So if you’re a bundle of nerves on exam day, try some relaxation techniques.

Now, you might be thinking: Nope, first life coach sayings and now this?! I’m not the meditation, yogi-in-a-cave kinda guy. I’d kick my own ass if I did that stuff.

Well, listen. If we told you that there was a way to rid you of your anxiety in 3 minutes, would you (a) try it? Or would (b) you get all roid-head about it and opt for more panic? We’d like to think that you’d at least barricade yourself alone in your room for 3 minutes and give it a varsity try, but option (b) is always available.

As far as relaxation techniques go, breath work is gold. Yogis call it pranayama. Luckily for us, Lacy is a certified yoga teacher. So barricade away and click here for the best breath exercises to calm your nerves. (Or stick with option b until you’re desperate.)

4Shed your anxiety habit

It’s hard to believe, but some people unconsciously use test anxiety as a crutch. They are just so used to feeling anxious, they can’t imagine taking a test without it and anxiety becomes a habit.

Plus, test anxiety can become a handy excuse for not doing well on an exam because it feels out of your control whereas the real issue could be something controllable, like a lack of preparation. Better to blame this condition.

If you are prepping like an engineering rock star and doing everything we’ve already discussed in Part 1 right, yet you’re still overwhelmed by anxiety come test day, you need to be shaken out of it. Anxiety may have become your test day routine.

In Part 4, learn how to create a new exam day routine to break the subconscious anxiety crutch and move into confidence on game day.

Until then, did you overcome test anxiety by calming your nerves, life coach aphorisms, or getting your head in the game? Share your story with us!

You got this!

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