As an exam coach who has worked with thousands of test-takers, I have yet to talk with someone completely immune from the effects of test anxiety. In fact, when I think back to my time preparing for the licensing exams, I vividly recall the feelings of anxiety that accompanied me throughout the process (including the pulsating feeling in my big toe when hitting the finish button on my exam). Anxiety is a normal feeling. hile studying and taking the exam it can even be helpful. Yes, helpful! Each month, I will be writing a blog that focuses on test anxiety and offers tips for managing it. Before we jump into reducing your test anxiety, this week’s blog will focus on how much anxiety is actually a good thing and why!
Let’s do an experiment. Grab a piece of paper and draw a horizontal line with a 0 at one end and a 10 at the other. Close your eyes and think about the exam and your studies, and come up with a number for how much anxiety you’re feeling at this moment. 0 equals no anxiety at all, and 10 equals about as much anxiety as you’ve ever felt. Now mark an x on the line to represent your current level of anxiety. Next, mark an x on the line to indicate what you consider to be a healthy amount of anxiety. I imagine some of you will mark 0 as the ideal, and while this might sound great, it’s actually not ideal. As I mentioned earlier, some anxiety is good!
Harvard Business Review describes the value of anxiety:
An influential study conducted a hundred years ago by two Harvard psychologists, Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, demonstrated that moderate levels of anxiety improve performance in humans and animals: too much anxiety, obviously, impairs performance, but so does too little. Their findings have been experimentally demonstrated in both animals and humans many times since then.
*Image retrieved from: http://nautil.us/issue/23/dominoes/fear-in-the-cockpit
“Without anxiety, little would be accomplished,” David Barlow, founder of the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, has written. “The performance of athletes, entertainers, executives, artisans, and students would suffer; creativity would diminish; crops might not be planted. And we would all achieve that idyllic state long sought after in our fast-paced society of whiling away our lives under a shade tree. This would be as deadly for the species as nuclear war.”(https://hbr.org/2014/01/the-relationship-between-anxiety-and-performance)
Not only is some anxiety a good thing, not enough is actually problematic. The key, according to research on the topic, is to find the optimal zone of performance—think Goldilocks and her porridge. So what is the optimal zone of performance and what happens to your brain when in this zone?
As we move toward the optimal zone of performance, our brain begin releasing stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline. In moderation these hormones are considered good and contribute to optimized performance; they help motivate us to study, allow us to focus our attention and work hard to achieve a goal—in this case, acing the licensing exam. You can liken this state of mind to that of an athlete who is in the zone, like a basketball player who keeps shooting 3 pointers or a tennis player who hits one winner after the next. In this zone, there is no stopping someone from achieving his or her best.
If you move too far in the direction of no anxiety, it would be hard to motivate and focus on the task at hand. In this case, sitting down to study for the exam could feel like a challenge not worth pursuing! Reviewing the materials would seem like an unworthy task and you may get easily distracted. Without anxiety, the basketball player and tennis player wouldn’t bother training for their next game—you can imagine how that would affect their performance!
On the other hand, if you move to far in the opposite direction, the amount of cortisol released becomes unhealthy and interferes with performance. With high anxiety, it could again become difficult to sit down and study, but for different reasons. You may feel overwhelmed and have a desire to avoid the exams and your prep materials. Looking again at athletes for comparison purposes, can you think back to a time when an athlete was considered the favorite to win, but they “choked” and couldn’t perform? It may very well have been due to too much anxiety.
Now let’s return to your piece of paper and the optimal level of anxiety you wrote down. Do you feel the number you selected is healthy—not too much, not too little, but just right? Can you think of times when your anxiety served you well? When just the right amount of anxiety pushed you to focus and work hard on that term paper in graduate school? Anxiety is not only helpful, but also a symptom of your integrity and desire to do well. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be anxious—that doesn’t sound ideal, does it?
When Amanda Rowan created the Therapist Development Center’s programs, her background in the neuroscience of learning and understanding of anxiety’s role in the learning process contributed to TDC’s design. The structure of our programs are based on the science of learning. Through the use of pre-tests, study plans, and an emphasis on self-care, TDC’s programs are designed to create balance and help you excel, increasing your ability to stay in the zone.
During the exam process, there may be times when your anxiety moves below or above what feels optimal. That is normal and to be expected. Similar to a professional athlete working with a team of trainers committed to their success, anxiety can still rear its head and interfere with performance. If you notice your anxiety is too high, additional support may be needed; it is important to recognize this and take action. If you feel you need help, reach out to your coach or a therapist to increase coping skills.
Each month this blog will focus on test anxiety and help build an arsenal of techniques to keep anxiety at just the right level. Stay tuned!