A New School Year…An Old Habit: Test Anxiety

NOTE: Those of us who are not students can read this article by substituting test anxiety with extreme nervousness during high pressure situations (public talks, meetings with a boss, high-pressure deadlines at work, etc.)

As summer begins to point towards Fall and we catch glimpses of subsiding summer heat, it is time to prepare ourselves for the unknowns of a new school year – new teachers, new courses, new classmates, so much “new”ness! Among so many unknowns, there are some old pieces we carry with us – positive and negative memories, friendships, and knowledge from the previous school year. We also bring our old habits with us – healthy and unhealthy.

One habit that many of my students bring back to the classroom every year is anxiety around exams, tests, and quizzes. The notion of a timed test throws many students into a frenzy. As a result, the new school year sometimes loses its charm not because of tests, but because of how we handle tests at an emotional level. To some of us, exams are unforgiving monsters, ready to gobble up all of our confidence. Others view exams as unnecessary and unending suffering… only to end in June and begin again in September. Many students get to the point of saying, “I just hear the word exam or test and get very nervous – I just can’t do it – I get so overwhelmed and I feel horrible about myself.”

Well, here’s the good news: test anxiety is not an insurmountable problem. With time, patience, hard work, and practice, the unhealthy levels of nervousness felt during exam time does begin to subside. A consistently anxious reaction towards exams is an old habit. The presence of an exam followed by an immediate reaction further implies some underlying habit that has become deeply ingrained in your brain over time. An example of how the brain may travel under pressure is as follows –

see exam –> oh no! → shallow breathing,tightening muscles→ blanking out →  try  regaining focus → see exam →…

And it all starts again.  It becomes very difficult to retrieve and logically analyze information.  The old habit is also a cyclic pattern, and it grows stronger over time if not resolved at any one piece. We could more easily understand the chain of events like this:

In order to break the cycle, we could try to distract ourselves from the nervous thoughts. The problem with this is that we are already distracted from the exam by a deeply ingrained habit. The thoughts and feelings that arise as a response to an exam pop up right away because the habit has become almost automatic. The one piece we could definitely loosen is the “shallow breathing, tightening muscles.” Once we loosen that piece, all the pieces afterwards also grow weaker and weaker over time!! It could look more like this (larger letters implying greater strength):

see exam → oh no! → shallow breathing,

tightening muscles→ blanking out →  try to regaining focus → see exam –> oh no! → shallow breathing

tightening muscles→ blanking out →  try  regaining focus → see exam →oh no! → shallow breathing, 
tightening muscles→ blanking out →  try  regaining focus → see exam…

As you can see, the magnitude of the response diminishes as soon as one of the pieces loses strength.

Action for this post:

I am down with a cold and will be recording meditation again in a few days. Instead of one meditation, I will be posting a series of short meditations to counter test anxiety over the course of the next two weeks rather than today. Stay tuned!

This entry was posted in Preparing the Mind, Test Anxiety and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A New School Year…An Old Habit: Test Anxiety

  1. Pingback: Exam Anxiety Meditation I | Learning In Stillness

  2. marcbalcer says:

    Payal, This is so helpful. We are discovering so much interesting science about how just stopping for even a second to recognize what is going on in your body helps to send calming messages to the brain and stop that cycle that you so expertly describe!


  3. Pingback: Test Anxiety Meditation II: Uncluttering the Mind and Heart | Learning In Stillness

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