Don’t Stress the Test

Expert Tips to Combat Test-Taking Anxiety

“Don’t stress;
Do your best;
Forget the rest.”

Sounds easy enough, right? Not for everyone.

The fun little quote makes its rounds on the internet every year as we approach the state exams, drawing praise and social media shares from parents of nail-biting young test-takers everywhere. And it should – it’s concise, helpful, sweet advice. But for students who suffer from severe anxiety, it isn’t quite that simple.

We spoke to Dr. Jared Treiber, a clinical psychologist and neurofeedback specialist who shared the following advice for anyone coping with heightened test-taking anxiety.

• Approach the exam with confidence. Use any strategies you can to personalize success: visualization, logic, talking to yourself, practicing, journaling, etc.
• View the exam as an opportunity to show how much you’ve studied and be rewarded for the hard work you’ve done.
• Be prepared. Learn the material thoroughly and organize the materials you will need for the test. Create a checklist.
• Allow yourself plenty of time, especially to do things you need to do before the test and still arrive early.
• Avoid the need to cram just before.
• Strive for a relaxed state of concentration. Avoid speaking with fellow students who have not prepared, who express negativity or who will distract your preparation.
• Get a good night’s sleep the night before the exam.
• Don’t go to the exam with an empty stomach. Fresh fruits and vegetables are often recommended to reduce stress. Stressful foods can include processed foods, artificial sweeteners, carbonated soft drinks, chocolate, fried foods, junk foods, pork, red meat, sugar, white flour products, chips and similar snack foods, foods containing preservatives or heavy spices. Surprisingly, even eggs should be avoided. “Eggs can increase serotonin levels and too much can increase anxiety rather than decrease it,” Dr. Treiber says. “So if you are already under stress from a test, they can do more harm than good.”

• Read the directions carefully.
• Budget your test-taking time.
• Change positions to help you relax.
• If you go blank, skip the question and go on.
• If you’re taking an essay test and you go blank on the whole test, pick a question and start writing. It may trigger the answer in your mind.
• Don’t panic when students start handing in their papers. There’s no reward for being the first to finish.

If you find yourself tensing up and feeling anxious:
• Relax; you are in control. Take slow, deep breaths.
• Don’t think about the fear. Pause for a moment, then think about the next step. Stay on task, step by step.
• Use positive reinforcement on yourself. Acknowledge that you have done, and are doing, your best.
• Expect some anxiety. It’s simply a reminder that you want to do your best and can provide energy. Just keep it as manageable as possible.
• Realize that anxiety can be a “habit” and that it takes practice to use it as a tool to succeed. You read that correctly—turns out anxiety isn’t always the enemy. According to Dr. Treiber, a small amount of nerves can be used to your benefit. “A little anxiety is good for you, as it can keep you sharp. For example, surgeons should always have a little anxiety so they are more aware of things. You want to develop ways to know and use your anxiety, rather than allow it to hinder you.”

• List what worked, and hold onto those strategies. It doesn’t matter how small they might be; they are your building blocks to success.
• List what did not work for you or what techniques need improvement.

Focus on What Matters
A note came home in my son’s backpack recently announcing an afterschool workshop to help students prepare for the ELA exam. I asked my10-year-old son if he would be interested in signing up, and he replied with a resounding “no way.”

When I pressed the issue further, he became adamant in his refusal and even began to cry. I couldn’t understand why he was so upset until he explained that he didn’t think he’d ever get a score of 4 on the exams anyway, so he felt there was simply no point in studying.

It’s disheartening for parents to see something as trivial as an exam deflating their child’s confidence. So it’s extremely important to stress that a child is not the measure of a test grade. Emphasize that tryng his best is all that matters, and that you will be proud of him either way. Remind him that he should be proud of himself too.

By Jeannine Cintron with Dr. Jared Treiber & Dr. Ari Goldstein of Chicago Mind Solutions.