Beat Test Stress

You're in the middle of a test. Your heart is pounding; your breath is quick and shallow. As sweat beads on your forehead, panic begins to drift in. What's going on?! These symptoms are actually part of a primitive survival mechanism known as the fight-or-flight response. Long before the invention of standardized tests, our ancient ancestors relied on it to endure the intense physical exertion needed for things like spearing wild boars. These same reactions might hamper a modern-day test-taker like yourself from delivering your best performance.

Unfortunately, you can't spear the test booklet with your #2 pencil or run from the exam room screaming, but you might be surprised to discover that it's actually your thoughts that are creating your stress. You're reacting not so much to the test, but rather to your perceptions about it, and that's good news. Why? You can control your thoughts.

Get ready

When you feel out of control and helpless, you're tapping into the negative side of stress, or distress. It's not possible to get rid of it entirely, but you can learn to manage it. You can even harness that adrenaline rush to sharpen your focus! Begin to prepare by dispelling the myths and half-truths that you've been telling yourself about your exam. By shifting your negative thoughts to more positive ones, you start to take control.

Here's a sample of some typical self-defeating chatter:

I never do well on standardized tests. It's so unfair that I even have to take this stupid test. They're probably going to ask me all the stuff I don't know.

Now, try shifting your thoughts and looking at it from this angle:

I can't control what questions are on this test, but I'm confident I'll do my best because I'm well-prepared.

See the difference? This may take practice, but once you've gotten your thoughts under control, you can take a proactive approach to preparation. Studies have shown that rehearsing a stressful event can significantly reduce fear. In that sense, you can think of test prep as a stress reliever!

Preparing for your test will make it seem more familiar and less intimidating. Face your fears by focusing on your weakest areas. You may still feel anxious, but you'll grow accustomed to the feeling, which means anxiety will no longer hurt your performance. Visualizing a successful testing experience can help you control stress and achieve success on the real thing.

Get set

You can minimize the risk of confronting anxiety on test day by having a plan.


Remember: you've prepared, you know what you're doing, and you're not likely to be surprised by anything. Keep the exam in perspective. Your life will not be wholly determined by your performance. Besides, you can probably cancel your scores and take the exam again, if need be.

If a negative thought creeps into your brain during the test, quickly replace it with a positive one. Don't be too hard on yourself, either. A certain amount of anxiety is perfectly natural; it lets you know that you're focused on the task at hand.

When all is said and done...

Plan to do something relaxing when you're done. That will make the test seem less like "the be all and end all," and remind you that life goes on, regardless of your score. It really does!

Peterson's © 2008

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