How I Learned To Cope With Test Anxiety + What I Wish I Knew When This All Started
The tests were being passed around the room. I remember my specific chair in the third row of the semi small general chemistry 2 class at DePaul University surrounded by the sounds of papers hitting the desk and pencils beginning to write. All I could feel though was my heart pounding so hard in my chest that I began to see little spots of light. Either I wasn’t breathing enough or I was breathing to hard but regardless, I was beginning to pass out. I had to excuse myself into the hallway and take a minute to get myself together to take what many people would think of as a simple college level general chem exam.
This was a pattern that I would become accustomed to and would lead to lack luster grades and even lower self esteem. I would finish every exam and sob to my dad on the phone. It was my routine. Take test, FREAK OUT, finish test, walk out of the science building down Kenmore, dial my dad and cry about how I was a failure at life. He would say the same thing over and over. He would tell me that I was smart and it was done so why freak out about it? He also asked time and time again if that grade would mater in 5 years. I was always snarky and would say well yeah because if I don’t get an A, I don’t get into grad school. I later learned that wasn’t the case but I sure thought that for a long time.
As you could probably tell, I might not have been the most fun person to be around at that point in my life. I was an over studier, I often kept to myself at night or would decline plans with friends in my sorority because if I didn’t study literally all the time then I was convinced I would fail.
UGH. I was sad because I felt like I was missing out on so much life. My friends were going out, dating, watching Netflix together, and eating and drinking their way through Chicago. It wasn’t that I wasn’t doing those things- it’s that I was incredibly stressed out while doing them so much so that I didn’t even enjoy it. All I could think about was getting back to the books. There were also times that I did isolate and not participate in social activities.
There finally came a point during sophomore year where I had decided that in addition to grief counseling that I was attending for the abrupt loss of my grandfather spring of freshman year, I would accept help in trying to learn how to be a more confident test taker and student. I knew this wasn’t a lifestyle I could sustain while also having healthy relationships and experiencing the fun that is Chicago in college or later, my dream of grad school.
Throughout that time period I was fortunate to have almost free counseling through the DePaul and I learned strategies that ultimately let me graduate Magna Cum Laude, get into grad school, and even more importantly, feel confident that I had gained back some of time I felt like I lost in my highest stress points.
Here are some lessons I learned.
Dad was right. Ugh, don’t you hate when that happens!? It really doesn’t matter all that much what grade I get on that gen chem exam. I just had to do average and try my best. Exams for one aren’t your whole grade. You have homework, likely online test problems, and maybe even extra credit! If testing isn’t your strong suit there are other areas that you can use to bring up your grade. I talked to the director of my maters program later into my school career at CSULA and asked her about grades getting into school. She knew how hard chem and organic chem are and literally said she had just hoped for a passing grade. A PASSING GRADE? That’s a C! She said she was more interested in my passion, experience, letters of recommendation, and work ethic. Because, at the end of the day you will NEVER EVER use organic chem in a counseling session as an RD. I’m sorry- you just won’t. So think big picture. It actually will not matter in 5 years. I’m not saying don’t try. Please try, but don’t think it’s the end of the world. You are so much more than the grades you get on your exams!
Stop over studying. Be intentional. Instead of filling my every waking moment with books I learned to create study plans that INCLUDED time for rest and fun. You heard me. I would make my time intentional by attending SI sessions which were basically taught by the super smart TA, I would go to office hours for problems I had a hard time with, and I (aka mom mom) hired a tutor, James. I found different ways that worked for me over the semesters but I always knew I had support and that I didn’t have to do this alone. I learned that studying without my phone is important. No causally checking instagram every 3 pages of reading. Set some time in your day, say 2-3 hours, that you will power through at the library, then I went to a fun gym class or dinner at my cousins house. Anything that was a fully present break. Even instagram checking can be fully present. Give yourself some time to check in with you favorite accounts, then you are done no mindless scrolling. Your brain will retain so much more in less time with intentional studying.
Don’t walk into the room and chat with people before the test. Wear headphones and listen to your pump jam or something soothing and go in RIGHT before test time. Less time to hear people compare study methods or stuff they don’t know and freak out.
Do not, I repeat, DO NOT, pull “all nighters”. Sleep, from a physiological test-taking perspective, is incredibly important in memory regulation, mood regulation, cortisol levels, and peace of mind that you need to excel on that exam. Even if some of the people in your class are pulling all night study sessions, walk away. Once I started learning this, I was leaving my friends in the library around 10 pm the night before an exam (which is too close for comfort now but in college my brain was ok with that) where as my friends stayed there till the morning or even worse, missed their alarms for the exam and never even took it. You really need to rest your brain. Even better before bed- can you read a few pages from your non-school book or watch a short episode of friends as you are brushing your teeth? Anything to just let all the information marinate in there. Since doing this I not only scored higher, but my physical stress response during the exams subsided drastically.
Don’t think the way your friend studied is the way you should study. With practice, you will know what works for you. I always do well with a combination of writing things (notecards), audio (lectures recorded or youtube videos, hello Khan Academy in my ears on a walk), and visual (attending SI sessions, watching Khan academy, or making flow charts and lists). Some people learn ZERO things from audio, for example. Just depends!
If it’s a really big test that covers a vast amount of information I need the day before or certainly 1/2 a day to chill out. Connie on finals week junior and senior year KILLED THE GAME. Connie on the RD exam also passed the first try and I honestly attribute that to yes studying, but also being calm before that test. It’s a weird exam and if you are wired before you won’t be in your right mind to think logically.
Study when your brain works- don’t when it doesn’t. I’m a morning studier! Ask my college housemates- I would be up at 5 am just to get the quiet part of the morning when no one would be up for about 1.5-2 hours just to get in some hard core brain power. I would never stay late at the library because I was useless. My brain was mush. Some people are the total opposite. Do what works for you!
I also had to understand that I needed to untangle my worth from my exam scores and being a student. I have so much more to ofer this world than scoring well on tests. I had to imagine my dream of being an RD and helping people and I realized that the more I spent my time doing things that helped people the happier I would be overall. I spent a lot of time being a nanny in Chicago and grad school, opted for fun dinners out, drinking a little too much and having an equal amout of fun, opening myself up to others, loving on my Chicago family. Once I realized that college is so much more than school was when I really began to overcome my test anxiety.
Finally- I did start on a low dose of anxiety medication Junior year of school. I always describe this as giving me two choices in life whereas without medication I only had one choice since my coping skills weren’t that awesome yet. Connie on medication gave me the ability to think rationally- I could see when I was overthinking things and I could move forward with overthinking and thus start an anxiety attack or I could opt out most of the time, use some coping skills I learned in therapy and move on. Without medication it really only led to one place- tears and an anxiety attack. Here are some coping skills I learned.
Get outside. Even in the dead of Chicago winter. Feel the snow, the rain, the cold on your cheeks. Get out of the little room you are flipping out in- breathe deeply.
Ground myself. Put both feet on the ground and my hands on my thighs while thinking of 5 sounds I can hear in that very moment.
Call a friend. My best friend Sarah was awesome and still is. I would call and vent and then ask to hear about her life! Hearing about someone else turns on the helper in me and reminds me that I might just need to step away from myself right now.
Get off social media. Social media to me is one thing that really ramps up my comparison monster and it always puts me in a worse place.
Watch a funny baby video or friends episode and then get back to the task you were doing.
Crying- it’s a physical release to me. I try and follow up crying with one of the above techniques- that usually gets the job done.
If this was a anxiety attack at night I might have to take some of the medication I was prescribed for emergencies - it would make me a little sleepy, and then I would just do my best to face another day in the morning. I really just want to stress that there is NO SHAME in the medication game. You are not broken. This is you and this is something that is part of your life- it’s ok. Its also ok if this ir your new normal :) It’s mine. I’ve come to understand that I’ll probably be on a low dose of meds for years and that I’ll always live with anxiety.
And so here we are. Upon entering grad school where I had an exam almost every week for the first year, I was leaps and bounds from where I was when I started working on coping with text anxiety. I share my experience to give someone else hope that you can certainly cope in a healthier way with anxiety. I want to validate your feelings and tell you that what you are feeling and experiencing is real and I hear you.
I can’t tell you how many people told me to just “stop stressing” or “you’ll be fine” or “it’s not that hard”. I WAS LIVID and just sad honestly. Those don’t validate my lived experience and for an individual with anxiety it only makes the feelings you are already having more intense. So know I’ve been there and I have so much compassion for your situation. I believe in YOU.
Feel free to comment with any questions!