You are not alone in your fear of doing poorly.

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

Yesterday, I had my second test in two days. Two tests in two days is nothing compared to finals week, but it was stressful nonetheless. I found myself stressed and nervous going into both. Luckily, my nerves were weakened a little when I realized other people were stressed too.

Stress is a normal part of my life, but sometimes I forget it’s something other people are struggling with too. One of the most effective strategies I’ve learned is to acknowledge the stress of those around me and understand I’m not alone. I’ve found this to be especially effective because one of my first reactions, when I’m feeling stressed, is to separate myself from others.

I create a story where they’re different than me. They’re more knowledgeable, they’re less stressed, they know what they’re doing and I don’t. If, however, I take a moment to observe the people around me, I can see that my story isn’t true. They’re going through the same things I’m going through, just in their own way.

Here are a few steps that have helped me quiet my nerves during stressful situations and connect with those around me:

Step 1: Take a Few Deep Breaths

Whenever I’m feeling nervous or stressed, I focus on taking a deep breath. I breathe in slowly through my nose, hold for three to five seconds, then slowly release. I try to do this for at least three breaths.

I use deep breathing as a form of mental reset. As this study reported on LiveScience shows, scientists have discovered a link between deep breathing and a sense of calm. Deep breaths seem to quiet an area of the brain that sends signals of alertness and stress. This study helps explain why our breathing tends to speed up when we feel anxious, frustrated or stressed.

When I walk into a test and I notice my mind racing or my body feeling tense, the first thing I do is take a few deep, controlled breaths. These breaths let me feel more in control, allowing me to move on to the next step in the process.

Step 2: Create a Sense of Compassion for the People Around Me

After I have gone through my deep breathing, I turn my focus toward the people around me. I make an effort to notice them. This allows me to turn attention away from myself, preventing myself from playing up the anxiety into something greater than it is.

Noticing the people around me also helps me gain a better perspective on the situation. After talking to friends and a few strangers throughout high school and college, I think it’s fair to say that most students don’t like tests. Therefore, most of the students I’m taking a test with probably don’t want to be there either. They likely have their own set of anxieties they’re facing at that moment.

Instead of comparing my experience to those around me, I choose to believe we are all in the same boat. This action often goes against my natural reaction to stress. Usually, stress makes me take the mental stance of pinning myself against others. I compare how prepared I am to how prepared they seem to be. I make judgments about whose the better student and who will likely do better on this test. These judgments never prove helpful in the end. Thus I do my best to avoid making them by consciously viewing the situation through the scope of shared experience.

Step 3: Remind Myself It Is Only a Test

The third step I take is to remind myself it is only a test. When I say it’s only a test, I don’t mean that it’s not important. I want to do well, but I know that I can bounce back if it doesn’t go well. I often find that stressful moments make me perceive the consequences more as direr than they actually are. For me, disappointment and a bit of regret can be acceptable responses to a bad test grade, but I should be back to my day as usual within a half hour.

Failures rarely end our chances of being someone or doing something. Instead, they postpone these opportunities. They may also force us to create a different approach or improve our skills, but we can usually find another way when we truly care about the goal.

I tell myself that the worst thing failing this test could do is force me to retake the class. This might require paying more money or staying for an extra semester. I would be truly devastated if this were the case, but I know I could handle it. I would find a way to get the resources I needed and prepare myself more completely the second time through. Knowing that I can handle the worst-case scenario takes some of the pressure off of myself.

Step 4: Act Prepared

When I have to take an important midterm or final exam, I usually don’t feel like I’m fully prepared. There is part of me that wants to scan through everything I can two minutes before the test begins, but I’ve found that this strategy does more harm than good. Instead of verifying that I know the material, I start to feel panicky. As I’m taking the test, I end up missing a question or two that I should have gotten because my mind was focused on all the little things I didn’t know for sure.

Now, at least fifteen to thirty minutes before the test begins, I stop looking at the notes. When I get to class, I put my writing utensils and anything else I might need on the desk. I’ll then go through the steps listed above. If there is still some time before class starts, I might do a quick meditation or talk to a neighbor. The simple act of acting prepared calms me and my scores tend to be slightly higher as a result.

Step 5: Give Myself a Reason for Taking the Test

The last thing I do before the test is handed out is creating a reason or reminding myself of a reason for taking this test. I try to make this reason as meaningful as possible. While taking the test because I need to pass the class to fulfill my major may be true, it doesn’t make me want to take the test any more than I did. Some reasons that do make tests a little more interesting include:

  • I’m interested in the subject area
  • I will be able to use the information that this test covers to do something I couldn’t before
  • I get to challenge myself to see how well I understand what I’ve been learning

When I can link a test to one of these reasons, the test becomes a little more bearable. Most tests should fit into at least one of these categories. There must have been a reason I chose to take the course. Most tests should be reflective of the course, therefore, my reason for taking the test often is the same reason that I’m taking the course.

In Conclusion

Each of these strategies is fairly simple on its own. Combining them has allowed me to feel more confident when walking into a test. They each do a little bit to relieve the stress or pressure I feel during tests. They haven’t propelled me to straight A’s, but they have allowed me to gain an extra 2–3 points on each test. When it comes to grades, every point counts.

These strategies have emerged mainly as resources for taking tests, but I have also found them to be helpful in other stressful situations such as class presentations. I also plan on using these strategies when the time comes to look for an internship or career. There are so many moments where managing stress or anxiety is imperative for success, and I believe these strategies will be very helpful in many such situations.

Taking just a few small steps to put me in the right mindset has proved quite helpful. Tests have proven to be a little easier and more bearable since I started adopting these habits. These steps have been a 1% improvement to my life, that I hope to expand upon in the coming years.

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