Taking the IC & RC Prevention Credentialing Exam, Overcoming Testing Anxiety with Seven Important Psychological Tools
By Fabricia Prado, LCSW
If you experience excessive worry, fear, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, irritability, nausea, stomachache, sweaty palms, shaking, fast heartbeat, procrastination, mental blank-out, and other symptoms before and while taking exams, you are NOT alone! The overall prevalence of test anxiety in college students, for example, is around 25 to 40%3. Test anxiety is defined as the “phenomenological, physiological, and behavioral responses that accompany concern about possible negative consequences on an exam.”1
Although feeling nervous before an exam is considered normal and tolerable stress, and may be energizing or motivational, test anxiety may be debilitating and as a result, test scores may not reflect a person’s true knowledge and skills. High levels of anxiety can impair concentration, memory, and poor test performance.2 One of the complications of test anxiety is that the urges to avoid unpleasant feelings and sensations related to the anxiety will lead to procrastination and this will create undesired consequences and more anxiety.
The causes of test anxiety can be multifaceted and differ from people with different cultural backgrounds and nationality, English proficiency level, and immigration status. Some studies suggest that test anxiety has a higher occurrence for people who already suffer from any type of anxiety disorders and different problems with retrieval of information, encoding, organizing, and storing information due to poor study skills.4 Parental and teacher expectations of high performance, fear of failure, lack of appropriate studying skills, access to resources, adequate prep time, and access to resources, level of support, and encouragement from others can also contribute to increased anxiety.
Being anxious or “stressing” about exams highlights a positive characteristic about you. It points out a value that you hold such as education, service, personal growth, and standards that give meaning to your life! So, start with that recognition: You are dedicating your time and effort to do something that is important to you.
Besides the basic measures of consistently studying and not cramming, getting a good night sleep, good nutrition, getting to the testing location early, having adequate resources, and studying skills, the ideas that follow will focus on helping you to manage test anxiety:
- Develop an Internal Locus of Control: Write down what is out of your control; externalize it, look at it and remove it from you – write down what is under your control, keep it close to you as a list of solutions or actions that you can focus on from now on. If your mind drifts away, gently redirect your focus to it as many times you need.
- Know what to expect: Anxiety is related to fear of the unknown, so instead of avoiding, familiarize yourself with the format of the test and what to expect, look at previous tests, use study guides, apps, or any form of preparation that simulates the real test questions with answers and rationales. Also, be aware of myths and misinformation about the exam circulating around in peer talk about the exam and ignore them; stick to information from reliable sources. Remember, anxiety can be contagious, but a positive attitude is also contagious! Your colleagues may have good intentions when sharing all they hear and “know” about the exam, but it doesn’t mean it is accurate information. Don’t chat with others about the exam close to the exam date and stay focused on your preparation.
- Identify your cognitive distortions and don’t fall for them: Is your mind catastrophizing, overgeneralizing, discounting the positive, and jumping to conclusions like a fortuneteller feeling convinced that your negative prediction is an already-established fact? Don’t buy into these irrational thinking patterns, and change them to positive, adaptive, self-talk. Decide which thoughts are helpful to you now and nurture them, notice the unhelpful ones and don’t dwell on them, just let them go.
- Use Downward Arrow Socratic Questioning: Continue asking yourself… and so what? For example, If that negative thought about yourself or the situation were true, what would that mean about you? Do this for every answer for what you think will happen. For instance, “I will fail”, and what does it mean to you? “That I am a bad son/daughter” or “that I am not smart, and others will know it”; and so what? What if that happens, what would that mean to you? “It would mean that I am a disappointment”. The final answers can provide you with important information about your core fear and what is keeping you in a place of anxiety and avoidance. You can become aware of how absurd or illogical that underneath fear is, and you may use this information to adjust your behavior, so your actions can actually lead you toward your goal and not away from it!
- Get out of your head! Interrupt the downward spiral of negative thinking, disengage that, move your body, move to another place, and engage into action! Remind yourself why you are taking this exam; the values that you hold and honor which were present the moment you made the decision to pursue this accomplishment. Break the invisible wall between you and your studying plan by taking action. Simplify! Take a small step, do one thing, and acknowledge that you have started, you’ve broken that wall, and experience the pleasant sensations that comes with “I am doing it; I’ve started!” It is not about how great or how fast, it is about noticing that you are acting on it and you have left the starting point. Nothing can stop the flow now. Moving forward is the only way.
- Increase your sense of self-efficacy: Remember and connect with feelings, images, body sensations related to other times in the past when you learned that you were more capable to complete a task than you thought you were – Do you have an experience like that? Have you already learned that about you? How many other exams did you have to pass to be sitting at this one? Focus on that particular experience of having passed before and learned that you were more capable than you thought – connect with that feeling, image and body sensation and stay with that for a few breaths or as much as you can. If you want to make that visual, surround yourself with objects and images that represent your previous academic accomplishments. View this Resource Development Installation short video [A link to this video will be provided] on the South Southwest PTTC YouTube channel to walk through this process.
- Practice breathing and relaxation techniques: practice this daily, long before the exam date as well as before and during the exam – Diaphragmatic breathing and PMR are the best! You can watch the videos for breathing techniques on the Self-Regulation Series of the South Southwest PTTC YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THWojdxgY90&list=PLV7fG3F5rcl5Uy3dxunUDLtZL1erlttMN&index=1
- John Jerrim (2022) Test anxiety: Is it associated with performance in high-stakes examinations?, Oxford Review of Education, DOI: 10.1080/03054985.2022.2079616
- Von der Embse, Nathaniel & Hasson, Ramzi. (2012). Test Anxiety and High-Stakes Test Performance Between School Settings: Implications for Educators. Preventing School Failure. 56. 180-187. 10.1080/1045988X.2011.633285.
- Lukasik, K. M., Waris, O., Soveri, A., Lehtonen, M., & Laine, M. (2019). The Relationship of Anxiety and Stress with Working Memory Performance in a Large Non-depressed Sample. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 4. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00004
- Cassady JC. Anxiety in schools: The causes, consequences, and solutions for academic anxieties. Peter Lang; 2010.
- 4. Bodas, J., & Ollendick, T. H. (2005). Test anxiety: a cross-cultural perspective. Clinical child and family psychology review, 8(1), 65–88. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10567-005-2342-x