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What’s So Scary About a Test, Anyway?

By August 30, 2018Blogs

You’ve been studying for weeks. You’ve done all your homework, attended countless study groups and review sessions, and you were even prepped by a tutor. You’ve memorized the material, and have been told by your peers, “The test was easy, you’ll do fine!”

So why, then, is it difficult to fall asleep the night before? Why does your heart race as you step inside the exam room? Why does your mind go blank at Question #1: “Name”? After all, you’ve done all you could to prepare! Or… have you?

Doubt. It creeps in and heightens your test anxiety. But what is there to be anxious about? What is so scary about a test, anyway? 

It isn’t the test itself that you’re afraid of, but the perceived negative consequences of performing poorly. 

There are several factors that can contribute to test anxiety including high expectations set by yourself or others, poor sleep and/or diet, and a competitive atmosphere where one is being judged based on performance. Negative experiences with performance, lack of preparation, and restricted test-taking times can also increase anxiety on the day of a big exam. Most roads, however, lead to one particular cause — fearing the consequences of failure. Whether your results determine your entrance to college, passing a class, obtaining a driver’s license, or simply keeping up with peers, the consequences of failure (or poor performance) seem greater than failure itself.

So, to prevent the possible negative outcomes, many of us resort to behaviors that could help us evade those consequences: over-preparation, or complete avoidance (e.g., procrastinating, setting the bar too low, not setting any goals). In these situations, we often fail to focus our attention on how to tackle the negative thoughts that contribute to our anxiety.

Some examples of negative thoughts that perpetuate test anxiety include:

Catastrophizing: Seeing only the worst possible outcome of a situation. For example, “If I don’t do well on this test, I will not get into the high school that I want, which means I won’t get into the college that I want. If I can’t get a good education I won’t become successful and I’ll end up a loser.”

Magnification: Exaggerating the importance of events. One might believe that their mistakes are excessively important. For example, “If I don’t do well on this test, my teacher will think I’m not smart; If I do well, then I’ll be more popular with my friends.”

Disqualifying the Positive: Recognizing only the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive. For example, one might receive an A- on an exam, but only focus on the answers they got wrong.

“Should” statements: The belief that things should be a certain way. “I should always get straight As; I should always be at the top of my class; I should not get a bad grade; I should have studied more.”

All-or-Nothing Thinking: Thinking in absolutes such as “always”, “never”, or “every”. “I never get a good enough grade in any subject.”

If these are some of your thoughts before or after a test, it’s no wonder tests are scary!

Here are some helpful tools to altering negative thoughts, remaining optimistic, and learning how to accept “failure” like a champ!

  1. Recognize negative thoughts, or distortions, and replace them with rational ones. Consider all possible outcomes so that your original assumption loses power. If all other alternative outcomes are possible, then the likelihood of your negative conclusion actually occurring will decrease.
  1. Practice cognitive reframing with optimism when negative outcomes do This is different than attempting to trick yourself into feeling better by reciting positive phrases. If you do get a bad grade, fail an exam, or simply don’t perform as well as you would have liked, then reframing your “failure” by setting an optimistic intention rather than a positive statement that simply cannot be guaranteed, can reduce rumination and allow you to keep moving. For example, instead of telling yourself “I will do better next time”, try saying, “This was an important lesson to guide me for future tests; this was a good learning experience; now I know how to study for the next one.”
  1. Practice frustration tolerance and living with uncertainty to increase your flexibility, cognitive strength and endurance, and to generate acceptance of unfavorable outcomes. One of the best ways to increase tolerance is to purposely expose yourself to possible negative outcomes or unfavorable situations until they are no longer distressing. In this case, it does not mean purposely failing an exam (although most people who have performed poorly at any given time in their life have learned that it probably was not the worst thing that could have happened to them). Instead, you might try to purposely imagine the worst outcome happening or write a narrative about the worst possible outcome and reread it to yourself without resorting to any relieving behavior (e.g., reassuring yourself that you’ll do fine, reviewing the material again even though you’ve memorized it). The chances of the worst possible outcome actually occurring are pretty low, and by comparing it to the actual outcome, you can learn to alter the negative thoughts in the future. 
  1. Introduce mindfulness as regular practice to help you stay focused in the present, remain self-compassionate, and reduce rumination about past or future outcomes. There are many easily accessible mindfulness techniques available through books, videos, and audiotapes, which can also be taught by your mental health professional.