Some students study for months on end, painstakingly master every single concept, see drastic improvements in their practice test scores, but then end up overwhelmed at the sight of the computer screen that the test is about to appear on. There are a lot of factors that end up producing test stress and test anxiety, but we have tried-and-true methods of dealing with both the biological and psychological underpinnings of these problems and want to share them with you!
Step 1: Fight the Biological Basis of Stress
Managing your breath is one of the biggest and easiest steps you can take towards beating test stress. There's a few reasons for this, but the most important one is that managing your breath allows you to tap into your autonomic nervous system and to engage anti-stress mechanisms. The autonomic nervous system has two parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Let's learn a little more about both of these halves:
- Sympathetic nervous system: The SNS is also known as your fight-or-flight system. When it turns on, your body produces adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress signals. Your heart rate goes up, your breathing becomes more shallow and faster, muscle tension increases, and your outer muscles receive more blood and oxygen (meaning your brain receives less). Turning on the SNS for very brief periods can be beneficial, but learning to turn it off on test day is critical.
- Parasympathetic nervous system: The PNS is also known as your relaxation response. The important thing to remember is that it is what allows you to access a state of relaxation, focus, recall, and insight. It serves to downregulate production of adrenaline and cortisol; it also slows your heart rate and breathing, reduces muscle tension, and ensures that brain oxygenation is prioritized over your outer muscles.
Clearly, the PNS is the system you want to stimulate on your test day. A little bit of SNS activation is okay (after all, you don't want to fall asleep on test day!), but you want to be calm, cool, and collected. So, what's the on switch for the PNS?
The on switch for the PNS is your breathing. While you can't consciously direct your SNS to shut off, by breathing deeply, slowly, and from your gut and belly, you can stimulate your PNS. By practicing meditative or deep breathing during your travel to work and in stressful conversations (such as one with your boss, for example), and during non-stressful situations, you will learn to stimulate your PNS and to calmly breathe to fight off fear on test day.
Another way to deal with biological stress is to be aware of your stress and of irrational responses. One great method of doing this is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is open-ended awareness. If we move through our lives with mindfulness, we are curious, perceptive, and present to our present circumstances. To practice the skill of mindfulness, you might, for example, try to notice one new thing on your way to work each day, or try to notice each day one new sight or perspective in a place you ostensibly know very well. Mindfulness can be externally focused on the environment, and can also be internally focused: how does your body feel right now? What is the quality of your breath? Are your muscles relaxed? What emotions are passing through you? What thoughts are running through your head? Asking yourself these questions on test day can help you access a less stressful state of mind, and can also serve as a self-control mechanism to help you stimulate your PNS. If you develop a mindfulness practice, enough to have some familiarity with it before you sit for your test, then you will be able to walk into that test and read each question with the same careful eye and open-ended curiosity you have been practicing elsewhere. Your mind will be clearer, and you will feel less stress.
Step 2: Fight the Psychological Basis of Stress
When it comes to psychological stress, you're fighting a battle of your thoughts versus you. Students who take these sorts of tests tend to be educated (at least at a high school and usually at a collegiate level) and successful in their academic or professional career. Our minds tend to have brought us success, but that's a big part of the problem. Whether or not we need to think, the mind secretes and creates thoughts 24/7. Not all of these thoughts are high-quality or even true, and some of them are based on extremely improbable or on unreliable or nonexistent evidence. Ironically, these "junk" thoughts are the ones that frequently trigger our emotions, especially the stressful ones. Becoming an appropriately confident student involves mastering the process of listening to the important non-junk thoughts, especially when it comes to defeating test stress and anxiety. Here's a few ways you can do this:
- Create space:
- Just as one can be mindful of one’s body or one’s breath, one can be mindful of one’s thoughts. This means simply watching the thoughts as a stream, as a passing parade. When one feels one’s self starting to get engulfed in the rollercoaster of a particular thought-pattern, one simply steps back and labels it “thought.” By that label, we are not saying it is true or false, simply a thought, no more.
- If this is new to you, then at first, it will seem next to impossible. Much more than other forms of mindfulness, mindfulness of thought requires tremendous perseverance and conscientiousness. One might find visualization and related tricks helpful – for example, imagining an unpleasant scene in your head getting smaller and smaller, or imagining turning down the volume on a troubling voice in one’s head. At first, one simply realizes in retrospect, “I had that thought, and then I went on that whole emotional ride when I didn’t have to!” With practice, though, one creates space: space between one’s self and the entrance to the rollercoaster, space to insert a more positive thought — or space simply to be mindful and breathe deeply. Imagine being able to walk into your test day with that kind of inner spaciousness! Imagine being able to approach your career like that!
- Practice: Moments when the mind is apt to be idle are the best times to put effort into this practice: in the shower, commuting time, standing in line, waiting for an appointment, etc. Of course, the very best practice would be a full-blown daily meditation routine. Many of the stress-reducing benefits of meditation simply have to do with enabling folks no longer to ride the thought rollercoasters they don’t want to ride. In addition to the myriad health and psychological benefits of meditation, such a practice would enable you to approach your test day, or any analogous challenge, with one-pointed clarity and balance. If you can commit to daily meditation, you will see some benefits even in your test a month or two away, and you will see more and more benefits in both your personal life and career as the practice deepens over time. Short of developing a full daily mediation practice, if you just practice mindfulness of thoughts consistently, in the odd empty moments of each day, you will make significant progress derailing the thought rollercoasters that don’t serve you, thereby becoming that much more calm and confident at the moments when you need to be “on” — for example, when you take your test.
Another set of thoughts you might encounter are thoughts related to your future and your standardized test. For more on this, check out this great article from our own Mike McGarry. The gist of it is that detaching yourself from stories you imagine about your future is a really important skill to practice. If your future success depends on you getting a certain test score in one of these mental stories, then that's not a story you should be thinking about while practicing for your test or on test day!
Step 3: That Sounds Great, but I Need a Few Clear Steps
Sure thing! We've given you a lot to read about. Here's a short and sweet outline of how to tackle stress using the methods we've described.
- Deep breathing throughout the day: Take slow, full breaths during all parts of your day (especially during "in-between" moments).
- Cut down on excitement: Excitement and stress feel different, but they both turn on the SNS. A little excitement is fine, but if you chase a lot of excitement, you are asking for a lot of stress. To practice one is to practice the other. This is precisely why a diminutive Zen Master was famous for saying: “Adventure — heh. Excitement — heh. A Jedi craves these things not.”
- Lower SNS stimulation: This is a tough one. No TV. Very few action movies. No video games. No thrills that turn on adrenaline production. Stay "unplugged" as much as you can -- this is a great way to remove excess mental stimulation from your life.
- Sleep: You need 8 hours of sleep each night. You're more likely to turn on your SNS when you're not sleeping well, and you need at least 8 hours of sleep with 1.5 hours of REM sleep to properly encode new concepts you've learned too!
- Exercise: Exercise also reinforces concepts you've learned, and helps to clear away dead neurons and to build fresh vasculature in your brain!
- No stimulants: Use caffeine and coffee sparingly at most. Absolutely no energy drinks are acceptable. No recreational drugs and minimal alcohol use is also very important. All of these tamper with your nervous system in ways that can make your test stress much worse.
- Eat healthily: More fresh fruits and veggies, fewer processed foods. Drink plain water —- not any liquid, but plain water —- at least eight big glasses of water a day as a minimum; 3-4 liters per day would be better. Use a sauna or sweat lodge, if you have access to one (drink even more water if you do this).
- Insofar as you have the possibility, spend quiet time in Nature, daily if possible: That could be a walk in the woods or walk on the beach if those are close to where you live. It can be looking up at the Moon and night sky in a relatively quiet place. For folks in intensely urban areas, with essentially no easy access to pristine Nature, it even can be as minimal as sitting and staring at potted flowers, or feeling the wind or rain on your skin. —- In the STAR WARS movies, the “Force” was described as flowing from Nature, from living things, and all the planets that played a significant role in defeating the Evil Empire were forest or jungle planets. The human mind spontaneously enters a calmer and more spacious emotional place when we spend some time walking around in Nature. Whatever else the “Force” is, it is about stimulating relaxed mindful awareness of the PNS.
- For mindfulness practice, start the habit of noticing one new thing in each familiar environment of your life: your office, your own living space, familiar stores, friends’ houses, etc. Each time you are there, force yourself to notice something you have never noticed before: it may be an object, or color, or scent, or sound. It may be just a perspective or point of view. It may be a quality of light & shadow at a particular moment of the day. It may be intuitive, a vibe about the place. Force yourself to notice something new every day, or every time you are there. At first, it may feel like there are only a few possibilities, and you will run out in a week or so, but the more you practice this, the more you realize: even the most familiar place offers a veritable infinitude of new discoveries.
- Practice curiosity and wonder: This is not so much inquisitiveness, needing to know the answer to things. It’s more about opening up questions that may not have any clear answer. Be curious about what other people’s experience might be like, all the “minor characters” in the film of your life. Be curious about natural things: plants, birds, patterns of water flow, etc. Be curious about histories and stories of people and things. Every day, challenging yourself to entertain genuine curiosity about something which, previously, it never occurred to you to find interesting in the least.
- If you feel ambitious about practicing mindfulness, read one of the respected authors: Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mark Epstein, Jack Kornfield, and Joseph Goldstein. If you feel particularly ambitious about becoming a Jedi Master, then start a daily meditation practice.
Step 4: Check Out These Helpful TED Talks
Did you know having an optimistic outlook can actually change your future? Well, kinda. According to Tali Sharot in this TED Talk, most people are naturally inclined toward what she calls “the Optimism Bias”, which is great news because having a positive outlook on life can lower stress and boost your motivation. That leads to better real life outcomes for you and a healthier lifestyle. A little dose of positivity can go a long way on test day.
Dr. Ivan Joseph, the Athletic Director and head varsity soccer coach at Ryerson University, explains why self confidence is important on and off the playing field.
Yes, it’s more confidence advice from a sports perspective, but stay with us here. There’s something to be said for athletes who are able to master a skill and get in “the zone”. You’ll also want to be able to enter a similar kind of flow state on test day, but you’ll need to get your mind right first!
In this TED Talk, Martin Hagger discusses specific techniques that athletes and coaches use to get psychologically prepared for game day, and how those techniques could be used to maximize performance. (As you listen to this one, replace “game day” with “test day” and we promise you’ll see some parallels.)
This is one of the more popular Ted Talks so maybe you’ve heard it before, but it’s definitely still worth adding to the list. In this one, Amy Cuddy gives everyone some quirky advice for boosting your confidence on important days: power posing.
That’s right, getting big and striking a “Superman” pose right before your test could change the way you think about yourself and get you in the right mindset for total domination. Give it a try! (But you might want to do it in the bathroom … you know, where people can’t see you.)
In this TED Talk, Mel Robbins reminds us how incredible it is that you and I even exist. (Did you know we beat a one in four-hundred trillion chance to be here today? That’s nuts.) She encourages us be confident and push the boundaries of our comfort zones in order to achieve great feats. You’ll walk away feeling like the ability to change your own life — and your test score — is totally in your hands.
Learning to control your PNS and your negative thoughts by implementing healthy physical and mental habits is a surefire way to conquer your test stress and anxiety. Even working on just a few of these at a time can be extremely helpful! Additionally, check out this feature article from a fellow student who also struggled with test stress and learned to master it. Finally, if you have any doubts about this or need some extra encouragement, just drop us a line from your Dashboard or at firstname.lastname@example.org :) Good luck!