Reducing test anxiety: the force of habit

examination stressJohn, a college sophomore, came to see me with an all-too common problem. Here’s what he said:  “I keep putting off studying exams till the last minute. I know it gets me stressed out and my scores aren’t as good as they could be,  but no matter what the test is, the same thing happens.”

John’s language is a giveaway. What he refers to as “it” (how he puts off studying till the last minute), and “the same thing happens” (repeating that pattern every time he has a test), makes it seem like the issue is separate from himself. In other words, he’s not owning the problem. “It” happens.  As we talk about this John comes to see that he’s got a habit which we’ll call “studying at the last minute” and every time an exam comes along John re-runs the same habit. So much so that the habit seems to have a life of it’s own. “It” comes back again and again.

That’s the story with habits: if we keep doing something the same way over and over again the pattern is harder and harder to  break. We get used to it. We know what to expect. We think that’s the way “it” is.  Even if the end results aren’t what we would like them to be, we continue to stay in that group.

But the groove gets deeper.  If you are anxious about a test every time one comes around consider that you have a habit which is called “test anxiety.”  It’s your way of dealing with tests. But it’s not  like your arm or your leg or your ear. In other words, it’s not part of you. It’s something you do, and you do it over and over again.  You get anxious about tests. You set in motion a complex of physical, mental and spiritual feelings that feel like they are overtaking you, like a giant wave, and all you can do is hope that you don’t drown.

If you really want to reduce your test anxiety then the first thing you need to do is to look at it like a habit. Watch how this habit get started. Do  the following for the next week: every time you think about an upcoming test observe what’s going on in your body:  is your heart beating rapidly? does your breath get short?  Notice what’s happening in your mind: are you saying negative things to your self like, “I’ll never do well on that test”? Observe your spirit: are you always getting distracted.

Consider this: your test anxiety is a “ball-of-wax” habit that combines all three.  Next, consider this: that like any habit, you can change the whole thing. You can learn a new habit.  How?  Stay tuned. Each week I’m going to add a different tip for setting different habits in motion.

In the meantime, email me about your habits of test anxiety. I’m all ears!

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