Dealing with test anxiety

One of the things that I have to deal with is students who have a hard time taking tests.   Now I know that there is a lot of hullabaloo about “teaching to the test”, but there is also a clear need to teach people how to take tests.

I teach future doctors, nurses, and law enforcement people.   Do you want these people to fall apart during pressure?

Smilodon TestsRealistically, everyone faces situations when they get flustered and can’t cope from time to time.    There can be many reasons why a person has a stressful reaction, but it all comes down to brain chemistry.    We all have an amygdala, that little piece of our brain that we evolved to survive living alongside Smilodon… and our amygdala are responsible for governing our stress response.   Fight, flight, freeze and appease:  our innate defenses in times of life-threatening stress.

Unfortunately, the amygdala cannot differentiate between saber-toothed-tigers and math tests.

So here is what you can do before a (known) stressful event (e.g. your math test):

  • Overprepare.    While reviewing material is a good idea, if you are anxious about a test it can be useful to give yourself extra time to polish your skills (and build your confidence).
  • Give yourself triggers.  Memory is a funny thing.  Often we will unintentionally link stimulus with certain skills or memories.   You can do this with a scent, or a physical trigger like tapping your hand.  I had one student who literally had a thinking… thong.   He told us about it.   It was endearing, and a little awkward.
  • Reframe the event.  If you are the kind of person to work yourself up before a test, then see if you can change the context for yourself.   If the word “test” freaks you out, see if “quiz”, “assessment”, or “exercise” is better.
  • Take care of your body.    Mind and body are not separate, and abusing your body will play out in poorer brain function and more dramatic stress reactions.   Which means you should eat healthy, and sleep regularly.


Here is what you can do during your test:

  • Feel it, then act (not react).   There is nothing you can do to prevent a stress reaction once it has started.   But if you can recognize the fact and have a plan in place, you can think rather than just flail destructively.
  • BREATHE.   One thing that happens in all stress reactions is people will hold their breath, or breathe very shallowly.   So take a few deep, regular breaths.   It allows your body to relax and get past its stress reaction.
  • Affirm yourself.    Remind yourself there are no saber-tooth-tigers in the room.   Also tell yourself that you are going to ace the hell out of this test.   Tell yourself you are both too stubborn and sexy to fail.
  • Use your memory triggers.   Now is the time to chew that special gum, tap your hand, or remind yourself that you are wearing your thinking thong.


Whether we always recognize it or not, our brains are just like the rest of our bodies.   Tools that we can use to do what we want them to do.   But you will need to train them.    Just like it takes practice to learn how to run a marathon, it also takes practice to put ourselves in stressful (but necessary) situations.

And for my students who just survived your first test:   smile.   You were not killed by a mathematical Smilodon.

Live to study another day.

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