How do we go from being unsure we’ll perform well on that test (well, I studied for 3 months and got a great score on my last practice test, so I know I’ll do well on test day!) to going completely blank, second-guessing every answer choice and running out of time (my palms are sweating, my mouth is dry, my heart is racing, I really don’t know this stuff!). Has this ever happened to you?
Anxiety takes over when something stressful (like test day) is signaled by the brain as a threat. When the brain sends signals of perceived threat, the body starts to react, and that’s when things spin out of control. Once your body starts to do what it does best – protect you from harm – things like algebra equations take a back seat. Chemicals that flow through your body can actually make you forget “trivial” things like math.
The thing about perceived threats is that they are all different, but our bodies will often deal with all of them in the same way. Here are two totally different examples with similar outcomes:
- Perceived threat # 1: A dog with sharp teeth foaming at the mouth turns the corner suddenly and makes its way toward you.
- Your body’s reaction: Heart races, palms sweat. Time seems to stop. You run.
- Perceived threat # 2: You open the test booklet and the first question is confusing. You can’t decide which equation is the right one.
- Your body’s reaction: Heart races, palms sweat. Time seems to stop. You just want to run.
In an ideal world, you can use important practices and tricks (discussed below) to prevent your body from experiencing anxiety. The brain-to-body connection can be trained. If it’s trained to react like there is a threat, the feeling of high stress persists even after the situation has passed. That is what we call anxiety.
Let’s discuss two major causes of anxiety, how they relate to academics and how we can … well … kick their butts!
Fear of the unknown
The brain/body system is impressive, but it gets confused and can perceive things as a threat which are not threatening. It makes sense that humans are conditioned to fear the unknown. Living in caves, when humans saw a new kind of animal (the unknown), they naturally assumed the animal was a threat. Avoidance is safer than a painful death. Humans instinctively and rightly fear the unknown. The same goes for the unknown in present day: a test, an unknown interviewer or an unknown debate partner.
What you can do:
- Become an absolute expert on the format of any test you are prepping for. How many questions does it have? How much time will you have for each question? How much time do you have overall? What kind of answers are expected: multiple choice, short written answers, essays? Do you have to show your work? How?
- Become an expert on the test materials. Review past test answers, existing materials... spend lots of time working backward to understand in detail how to get from the question to the right answer.
- Once you know the content and the format of the test like the back of your hand, do lots of practice tests to prove to yourself that there’s nothing unknown and scary that can come your way. No painful death here!
Imposter Syndrome or “Am I good enough?”
Another vestige of evolution, humans perceive as a threat anything that makes them feel like an outsider. Why? Imagine you weren’t seen as an equal in your tribe and weren’t given enough food or clothing as a result. We need to belong in order to survive. This is why when you feel like you’ll never be smart enough to understand Sin and Cosin curves you become your own worst enemy. Allowing feelings of inadequacy to come into the forefront of your thinking lets anxiety in. The good news is that understanding this concept is a huge part of the battle.
It may sound simple, but if you tell yourself enough times: “I am not good at science!” then it will become true. Try using positive, growth-mindset thinking. We call it “reframing.” Make the voice in your head change the way it talks to you. (I am learning how to do better at science!)
Reframe: “I am not good at tests” into “I am learning how to do well on tests.”
No one is born knowing Algebra 2. As Albert Einstein famously said: “It’s not that I’m smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” The fact that we are all learning all the time unites us.
Successful people talk to themselves .
One way to feel you’re good enough is to visualize your success. Close your eyes and imagine yourself taking the test and knowing the answers. How does it feel? Allow yourself to smile and let the positive feeling resonate in your body.
Encourage positive thoughts. When studying for an important test, or preparing for an interview or a presentation, tell yourself: “Yes I can do this!” “Yes, I know this!” “Yes, I will do well on this test!”
And if you can’t hear your own inner voice because of anxiety, it’s because you’re not breathing properly. Count to 4 as you breathe in... 4 as you breathe out. This will bring your back to yourself. You can actively choose to put yourself into a relaxed state and create another way of conversing with yourself. Do this exercise and notice the difference. Do you feel less aware of others and more aware of yourself? Most likely!
No matter how many tricks you master, don’t leave out talking to yourself as part of the solution to mastering test day. Channel Einstein and make sure you acknowledge all the effort you have made to get to this place. Write it down, if helpful.
- I have practiced __________
- I got better at understanding _________
- I am proud of myself for learning ____________
- I know the format of the test is _________
- I’m going to do well because ___________
By feeling proud of your progress and reframing the focus from the result to the process, you will see “scary” academic hurdles like SATs, ACTs, college applications, and admissions interviews as not as threatening and maybe as exciting opportunities to show how much you’ve learned and how you’ve trained those brain-body reactions to work in your favor.
You can do it! We dare you to try it!