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Exam anxiety is a real and legitimate problem that can affect a person’s academic performance. There are however certain skills you can learn to assist with managing exam anxiety.
There are numerous causes for exam anxiety:
- Poor study skills – Some students do not know how to effectively study for an exam, as a result they feel under prepared and so experience anxiety. Whilst others think they know how to study but are in fact using inadequate methods.
- Negative self-talk – These are often students who have done badly in previous exams or who dislike sitting for exams and so convince themselves that they will do poorly. The self-doubt makes it difficult for them to concentrate before and even during the exam.
- The perfectionist – For some students anything less than a distinction is deemed a failure, thus placing exaggerated and unnecessary pressure on themselves.
Physical symptoms include –
- tense muscles
- rapid heart rate
- rapid or shallow breathing
- feeling faint
Cognitive symptoms include:
- inability to remember simple things
- illogical thinking
- mental blocks
In order to deal with exam anxiety one needs to address both the physical and cognitive aspects of the anxiety. Certain techniques are specifically recommended for the relief of exam anxiety, with some requiring practice and persistence.
Our thoughts have the ability to create positive or negative feelings about ourselves and situations. Anxiety is brought on by a person’s thoughts or expectations of how an event or experience is likely to turn out. A solution for dealing with this form of doubt is referred to as cognitive restructuring – what this process does is get the individual to examine their irrational, negative self-talk and replace it with positive self-talk.
If you repeatedly tell yourself that you are not going to do well in an exam, your emotions will mirror this message resulting in feelings of anxiety because the message you are repeating to yourself is negative and self-defeating.
Of course just telling yourself that you are ready for an exam, but you haven’t opened a book, is not going to work. You need to have put the effort and time in so as to reinforce your positive self-talk; so that the message is true and you can believe in it.
1. Be realistic about the amount of time you have.
It is easy to misjudge how much time you actually have available for studying or completing assignments. One way of finding out where you are wasting time or could be using your time more productively is by creating a master schedule:
You literally map out every hour of every day (weekends included) and create a “big picture” of how you spend your time. You will then be able to see what time you have available for studying / working on assignments, where you are maybe wasting time and, where you could perhaps get more time from during particularly busy periods.
2. Pay attention in lectures
You don’t realise it but your lecturers drop hints and clues throughout their lectures about what is important and may be coming up in the next exam or assignment – if you pay close enough attention you will notice them:
- writing notes / keywords on the whiteboard
- repeating something over and over in a lesson, or over a period of time
- literally saying the words: “This is important”
- their tone of voice or gestures when address a particular concept or topic
- assigning specific readings or textbook chapters
3. Take notes during lectures…and use them
Taking notes during lectures means you are actively engaging and thinking about what is being presented. By re-writing the notes after the class you will not only be reinforcing the information but you will also be able to organise it in an understandable manner; highlighting keywords or concepts that the lecturer paid special attention to.
4. Really study
Studying is not about reading your textbook and notes over and over again in the hopes that the information will magically transport itself to your memory, so that you can regurgitate it into your answer book during the exam.
Studying means knowing and understanding concepts and theories and how they relate and interact. At college level you will very seldom (if ever) be expected to merely memorise and regurgitate information; instead you are required to analyse, apply and organise the information you have learned into a response that adequately addresses the question that is asked.
The use of relaxation techniques is often recommended for the treatment of anxiety. There are a variety of techniques that can be used, we will be looking at two particular exercises:
- Deep breathing
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation
When you are relaxed you tend to take longer and deeper breaths versus when you are anxious your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Deep breathing exercises reverses this, sending a message to your brain telling it to calm the body.
Deep breathing is a technique which becomes more effective with practice as your body will learn to read the signs that it needs to relax and calm down.
- You can be sitting or standing, just make sure you are relaxed (no tensed muscles) before you begin.
- Make sure your hands are relaxed, your knees are soft, and your shoulders and jaw are relaxed.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose – counting in your head for five beats as you breathe in, keep your shoulders down and allow your stomach to expand as you breathe in.
- Hold your breath for 5 – 10 beats – you shouldn’t feel uncomfortable but you should be holding your breath for a little longer than you normally would.
- Breathe out slowly and smoothly for 5 – 10 beats.
- Repeat until you feel calm.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation:
When a person is stressed or anxious they tend to tense their muscles resulting in feelings of stiffness and sometimes even pain in the back, shoulders and / or neck. Progressive muscle relaxation teaches you how to become aware of where you store your tension and to release it.
- Find a quiet, private room.
- Lie down on your back, making sure you are comfortable. You may want to put a pillow behind your head. Take your shoes off and make sure you are wearing comfortable, loose fitting clothes.
- You are now going to intentionally tense each of your muscle groups, and then relax them, starting with your feet and working your way up the body.
- Tense the muscles in your toes – curl them into your foot – take note of how this feels – hold the position for 5 seconds.
- Relax your toes – notice how they feel different in the relaxed state.
- Tense the muscles in your calves – hold it for 5 seconds – notice the feeling of tension in your leg.
- Relax your calves – notice how the feeling of relaxation differs
- Tense your knees – pull the knee caps upwards – hold the pose for 5 seconds – notice the feeling of tension in your knees.
- Relax the knees – notice the feeling of relaxation.
- Repeat the pattern of tensing and releasing working upwards through your body: thighs, buttocks, pelvic floor, stomach, fingers, hands, forearms, upper arms, shoulders, neck, face.
- No other muscle group should be tensed when focusing on a particular area.
- Make sure that the room you are in is quiet and comfortable, so that you can concentrate on the feeling of tension and relaxation without any disturbances.
- You may feel sleepy after (or you may even fall asleep during) this exercise.
The breathing and relaxation techniques provided in this post are for informational purposes only. Please consult your family doctor before beginning any new exercise or relaxation programme. This is particularly important if you have any pre-existing health conditions.
Therapist Aid.com (n.d.). Relaxation Techniques. Retrieved from: http://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-worksheet/relaxation-techniques/anxiety/adults. [Accessed: 19 April 2016].
University of Alabama. (n.d.). Dealing with Test Anxiety. Retrieved from: http://www.ctl.ua.edu/CTLStudyAids/StudySkillsFlyers/TestPreparation/testanxiety.htm. [Accessed: 09 May 2016].
Watson, J. (2015). Avoiding Test Anxiety – Tip Sheet. Retrieved from: https://www.butte.edu/departments/cas/tipsheets/studystrategies/test_anxiety.html. [Accessed: 09 May 2016].
Weimer, M. (2016). Test Anxiety: Causes and Remedies. Retrieved from: http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-professor-blog/test-anxiety-causes-and-remedies/ . [Accessed: 09 May 2016].