Taking tests is something we all have to face sooner or later in our academic, professional and even our personal lives.
Exams and tests represent gate keeper experiences throughout the stages of our lives, determining what doorways and opportunities we can access. We invest much energy, attention, study, practice and preparation into taking tests and exams, and they can be defining moments in our lives – whether they result in victory or defeat. For example:
- Sport and music tryouts;
- High school (QCS, HSC) and university exams;
- Doctor (GAMSAT) and Law (BAR) entry exams and ongoing testing;
- Other professional entry and ongoing exams.
Performing Under Pressure
We all know that great effort must be committed to studying the content for taking tests, but few understand how to train to be resilient to the pressure the exam environment presents.
If we cannot master the skills required to study smart and perform under pressure, exams and tests will become roadblocks to reaching our potential. The very nature of most exams (being critically evaluated, pass or fail, public performance, no ‘do overs’, where success and failure have significant value) is quite intimidating, setting off alarm bells in the brain.
All this stress on the mind and body, knowing we are going to be taking a test, can create performance anxiety.
Performance anxiety is completely normal and everyone experiences it at some point in their lives.
But for some it can be very debilitating, creating a lot of problems when it comes to taking tests and exams, regardless of one’s skills, abilities and aptitudes in the area being tested. In fact some very skilled competent people struggle with performance anxiety due to life experiences (past failures), or their genetics and personality.
People suffering from significant performance anxiety may fail on tests due to the debilitating effect on their preparation, as well as their performance on exam day.
Performance anxiety is caused by the brain’s security system. This system is built to detect threats to our survival and quickly mobilises the “fight or flight” system, which helps keep us safe from physical harm. In the modern world this inbuilt security system commonly misrepresents threats to our future success (such as tests), as threats to our survival. Unfortunately, the anxiety of the fight or flight response is not an ideal state for taking tests!
Once performance anxiety is triggered by test-related cues, and can have a negative effect on our:
- Emotional state (we become frustrated, angry, irritable, nervous);
- Thoughts (limiting problem solving, and creating overwhelm, racing thoughts, negative thinking);
- Focus (easily distracted, narrowing of focus, focus fatigue, ruminating on problems);
- Energy (dramatic energy swings, low energy, nervous energy, affecting sleep and appetite).
Managing Performance Anxiety when Preparing for Tests
Preparation for a test may be compromised by performance anxiety in the following ways:
- We may feel overwhelmed by workload and paralysed by over-analysis;
- We sacrifice self-care activities that keep our batteries filled, due to stress;
- We find ourselves procrastinating and avoiding studying;
- We get easily lost in details resulting in poor organisation, planning and time management;
- Wasted energy due to stress and its effects on our health, appetite and sleep;
- Confusion, low mood and negative thinking can all lead to low confidence and self-belief.
This leads to the exam getting built up into a monster and us feeling helpless and hopeless.
Performance Anxiety on Test Day
Performance anxiety also affects us when taking the test, as our nerves can lead to things like:
- Low mood;
- Preoccupation with physical nerves;
- Distraction and concentration issues;
- Over arousal and even panic;
- Difficulty thinking calmly and relaxing the mind;
- Rushing, getting ahead of ourselves and not reading or listening carefully;
- Preoccupation with approval from others in some exams;
- Energy spikes and adrenaline dumps;
- Preoccupation with results and the importance of the test;
- Preoccupation with other performers, and unfair comparisons.
Long term exposure to stress and anxiety can take a heavy toll on our health and wellbeing, even leading to more serious mental health issues. Repeated failures that limit access to opportunities in life can severely harm self-esteem, and we may even see ourselves as incompetent in areas that we may actually excel in!
What Can We Do?
The good news is that when it comes to taking tests, we can all learn to prepare smarter, manage stress and anxiety, and perform better under pressure.
As a sports and performance psychologist, my role is to offer structured and personalised support and skill building to optimise your test or exam preparation and performance. This support is based on sport psychology skills and theories that have been tried and tested in the high pressure domain of professional sport, and have a strong evidence base and success rate. They have been adapted from sport for written, verbal, technical and movement-based tests and exams.
Here is an outline of how I would approach improving your ability to succeed in taking tests, with a focus on both the preparation stage (optimising organisation, goals, study, practice and self-care) and the performance stage (mental skills, planning, peak state):
- Organisation – performance profiling, time management, goals, study plan, gathering information;
- Optimising your study environment to help you stay calm and focussed;
- Building your motivation, confidence and self-belief;
- Improving self-care to protect your body’s batteries and wellbeing;
- Managing stress and anxiety around study and the test, and helping you to reduce procrastination;
- Gauging the test’s challenges and triggers – contextual, social, content;
- Creating a pre-exam routine and plan to manage test-taking nerves;
- Practicing under pressure, not just studying the content – eg practice test taking.
- Equipping you with the mental skills to stay relaxed and reach your peak state;
- Your plan of attack – one step at a time;
- Improving your attention skills to stay focused on task and in the moment;
- Mood and confidence building tools.
Taking tests is not fun, but the experience can be made much easier, healthier and more fulfilling with some guidance and support to overcome performance anxiety.
If you have an upcoming test, or are struggling with tests in general and would like to work with a professional to improve your chances of success, then please make an appointment with me.
Author: Abra Garfield, BPsych, MPsych (sport & exercise), MAPS; Medicare ATAPS provider.
Abra Garfield is an endorsed Sport and Performance Psychologist, with a passion for helping others to achieve optimal performance whether on the sports field, in the classroom, home or office. By drawing on a range of therapeutic techniques including Mindfulness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Motivational Interviewing, Abra helps many people with goal setting, motivation, and overcoming anxiety.
Abra is the Principal Sport Psychologist and founder of Summit Performance Psychology. Visit the Summit Performance Psychology website to learn more or like us on Facebook to receive Summit Performance Psychology Articles and event updates.
Psychologist Abra Garfield has moved.
Find his details on his website: Summit Sport & Performance Psychology.