Stress and anxiety about competitive exams are S-class enemies for students, especially when all they are told is that their score determines their career. One form of anxiety is anticipating an exam and studying for it. The other kind is the test anxiety experienced during the exam itself, which manifests as nervousness, constantly looking at the timer count down, rethinking answers, switching back and forth between questions, etc.
For exams like GMAT, SATs, CAT, and GREs – your typical competitive exams with a time constraint and math/logic + language competency questions – anxiety is a primary problem to manage at the testing center.
Now, being completely relaxed or completely anxious does not work for most students. The optimal incongruity theory (and the optimal arousal theory) states that moderate anxiety and stress can enhance performance by increasing motivation, a sense of challenge, a feeling of being in control, and being alert. At the right level of arousal, a student can do the entire test in flow without worry. But high anxiety can increase arousal to the point performance drops dramatically.
So this article is primarily for those who suffer from high anxiety to the point it almost always worsens test performance.
1. Smell good
Wear a good fragrance to feel relaxed and smell it when anxiety builds up. Aromatherapy and its diluted version – smelling good and smelling fragrances – quickly relaxes the nervous system during tests (and in general). A simple trick is to shower well and smell good during the test. Whenever anxiety rises, mindfully inhale your fragrance.
2. Make a time-checking habit
Make a habit of looking at the time only when you finish thinking about your answers. In an exam, which shows you a counter, anxiety can make you focus on the time and get more anxious. One way to counter this is to form a habit during mock tests to look at the time only when you are done reading a question or thinking about it. Given enough mock tests, the habit will transfer in your real exam, and you’ll not feel a strong impulse to constantly monitor time.
3. One deep breath when anxiety peaks looking at the time
Deep breathe every time you look at the time. You should temporarily feel time slows down and feel you have more. A deep breath can make you mindful of your surrounding and accept it for what it is, including your question’s difficulty and remaining time. Being hyper-aware feeds the brain more information. And perceiving more information creates an illusion of time slowing down. In an anxious state, the brain is processing high amounts of information, but that information is narrow and fixated on negative outcomes, not your exam-related details. The goal is to include exam-related details by using breathing as a way to regain attention.
There are more advantages of deep breathing during breaks or between questions. Deep breathing offers psychological distance from the anxiety-inducing context. It counteracts the physiological responses of anxiety – increased heart rate, sweaty palms, freeze response, muscular tension, etc. Self-guided slow and deep breathing also reduces pain.
4. Waste time on purpose
During mock tests, count down from 5 to 1 and then start reading your questions. This will ensure you train for higher demands. Like training with heavier weights than needed for a sport, handicapping yourself by wasting some time to increase time pressure can train you better. The exam will then feel easier than it is.
5. Stretch your hands/arms
Stretch your hands or palms during a mini break. Stretching is a mood regulator. When you release muscle tension, your body gets a sense of comfort, flexibility, and alertness. These feelings are not limited to the muscles because the brain tries to be in sync with how the body feels. That instant release of tension aligns the brain to feel relaxed.
6. Use your own name in self-talk
Use 3rd person self-talk while doing the test. Like “Aditya knows this answer” or “Aditya can handle this” instead of “I can handle this.” This dilutes the emotional burden of taking a test. This trick is particularly useful when anxiety is about second-guessing yourself. Using your own name instead of referring to yourself as “I” creates psychological distance between the mind and a task. Like zooming out on a map, seeing yourself zoomed out reduces the intensity of the emotional aspects of the task.
7. Wear nature-print and flowery clothes
Wear flowery clothes which prime your nervous system to calm down. Flowers and nature induce that. In most cases, connecting with nature can reduce stress because it taps into a primitive comfort level induced by biophilia. Imagining nature also triggers memories of pleasing smells and positive emotions, further enhancing mood and cognition. By wearing flowery clothing or nature-patterned clothes, the brain is primed and triggered to induce that relaxation and enhance cognition. Research confirms that looking at a flowery image can reduce cortisol, reduce blood pressure, and deactivate negative emotional activity in the brain. When stressed, look at nature elements on your clothes and return to your questions.
8. Sit upright
Use an erect posture for difficult things like mental math and reasoning. A study with 125 students (avg. age 23) looked at the difference between an erect posture and slouched posture on a mental math test. The researchers observed that the group instructed to have an erect posture found the test less difficult, had fewer anxiety symptoms, and blanked out lesser than the group instructed to have a slouched posture. Posture did not affect students who had little to no test anxiety. So this trick can generally help those who don’t perform their best or have learning difficulties. Sitting upright also improves mood and can be a fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy.
9. Have a lucky charm
Carry a lucky charm, but only if you believe in it. Sportspeople do it, business owners do it, and you can too. Placebos or lucky charms provide comfort, confidence, and optimism and also reduce anxiety. Even if you know it’s just an object, it doesn’t lose the power that either you or someone else you care about bestows upon it. Research shows open-label placebos (the consumer knows it’s a placebo) and also taking an imaginary pill (thinking you are taking a pill that solves all your problems) can reduce test anxiety significantly. If a friend says, “Carry this coin; it’ll bring good luck,” don’t rebel against it. Let their faith give you comfort and optimism. When anxiety and stress rise, people get desperate, and then faith-based strategies gain power.
10. Pretend you are Batman
Take the test as if you are Batman and not you. Pretending to be a superhero (the Batman effect) makes the brain shift mindsets in a way that you adopt the superhero’s characteristics. Batman, who is constantly saving the world under high stress, becomes a good persona for the student to emulate. Just pretending to be him can make you temporarily lose anxiety and improve cognitive functioning. Your outlook toward the exam will be Batman’s (or any superhero you are familiar with) and help you behave like a smart, strategic, skilled person and divert attention away from your anxiety.
- The best ways to memorize facts for an exam
- The best ways to study, according to psychology research
- Studying habits to avoid
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
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