In my last two blogs on test anxiety, I provided psychoeducation about the benefits of moderate levels of anxiety, as well as guidelines for how to utilize self-compassion to temper anxiety when it becomes debilitating. The goal of this month’s blog is to help you identify some common and unhelpful behaviors you may be engaging in when anxiety gets the best of you, and identify strategies to shift away from these behaviors and instead prepare for your exam more effectively and confidently.
I have a long history with anxiety and can vividly recall instances both in college as well as during my time preparing for my own licensing exams when anxiety got the best of me. A common sign that anxiety was winning out was, rather than focusing on the task at hand, I would find a hundred and one distractions to focus on instead—and I would actually convince myself I was being productive. I know I am not alone in using this tactic; it is something I see happening regularly with those preparing for their licensing exams. So, I thought it would be helpful to provide some tips to help you recognize if this is a pattern you are engaging in and, if so, some useful tactics to shift your focus back to more effective studying habits.
Imagine for a moment that you’re back in graduate school and your professor gives the class an assignment to write a term paper. How would you proceed? I imagine you would first choose the topic, develop an outline to organize your thoughts, go to the library or locate articles online that address the subject, write your paper and turn it in. Easy, right? Now, imagine instead of this streamlined process, you instead chose your topic and then proceeded to locate one article after the next, then reached out to experts in the field, talked with friends about the assignment, then found more articles, then did more research and instead of writing your outline, you continued searching online for more articles because you felt what you had was inadequate, you were uncertain where to begin, what you wanted to write, or had insecurities about your ability to write the quality paper you expected of yourself. In the second scenario, the deadline would arrive and you would have all of this information, but no coherent plan or paper to turn in.
I have to say; just writing the latter version above caused my anxiety to spike. This type of behavior is a good sign that anxiety is getting the best of you—rather than focusing on the task at hand, anxiety tells you that what you have is not enough, and that you need more and more. It prevents you from staying focused and using your time efficiently and effectively. This method will make it harder to sit down, write the outline, and complete the paper; you are inundated with information that is difficult to sift through and you have spent a substantial amount of time on unnecessary tasks that did not move you closer to your goal. And, because you’ve used your time inefficiently, you will have less time to engage in self-care, including exercising and socializing with friends and family.
There are several variations to this manifestation of anxiety when it comes to preparing for your exams—it could be that you avoid studying all together, or you begin to study and instead search the internet, snack on foods when you’re not hungry, clean the house- the list goes on. The good news is, it’s easy to detect when you are engaging in these types of behaviors and once you recognize them, there are clear steps you can take to shift away from this pattern and toward a healthier approach to your studies.
Acknowledge anxiety’s presence. Take a pause and acknowledge the presence of anxiety and how it is affecting your ability to prepare effectively for the exam.
Try to understand the cause of the anxiety. Identify why it exists. It’s safe to say that a large reason the anxiety exists is because you have integrity and care about the outcome of this exam and your ability to advance in your profession; that’s a great thing. However, there are likely other reasons at the root of your anxiety that would be good to understand. Take a few minutes to answer the following questions:
- What is your history with taking exams? Do you have minimal experience taking multiple choice exams? Has it been a long time since you’ve taken a multiple choice exam? Have you traditionally struggled with this format?
- How have you organized your studies? Did you create a clear study plan to follow? Is the study plan practical based on competing demands for your time and energies?
- What support systems do you have in place? Do you have a study partner, and if so, is it a good fit?
- Are you active on social media groups? If so, how is your involvement affecting you? Do you find the posts on these groups helpful or harmful?
- If you are on social media or discussing the exams with friends, how does their opinion of the exam’s level of difficulty impact your anxiety? How much are they studying and does this add to feelings of pressure-feeling like you are not doing enough compared to others?
- Are there external pressures impacting you? Does your employer have expectations?
- Are you over-studying? Are you spending too much time and energy on your studies and not enough engaging in self-care and finding balance? Are you wondering if your study program is enough and trying to find more and more material?
By understanding the answers to these questions, you can begin to directly address the underlying cause(s) of the anxiety.
Slow down. Take some time to build a practice to increase your ability to manage the anxiety more effectively. While some of the issues identified above may require outside support to be addressed effectively, you can immediately begin to engage in building a mindfulness practice to slow down the anxiety. We’ve recently added some great blogs to help you build this practice. You can utilize these, or utilize your own techniques.
Reevaluate/restructure your study plan. Take concrete steps to adjust your study plan to address any concerns you’ve identified above. For instance, if you are studying with a partner and find it increases your anxiety, consider shifting to studying on your own. Or, if your study plan currently has you studying 5 days a week, but you work full-time and are also balancing family life, study fewer days per week and plan to take a few additional weeks to prepare.
Ask for help. If you feel your anxiety is interfering with your studies, ask for help from those best suited to address your concerns. TDC has coaches available not only to answer questions about the test materials, but to help you with your studies before you go down a rabbit hole. Rather than overwhelming yourself with too much information, attending multiple workshops, spending more and more of your time, energy and resources, check in with a coach to identify the most effective ways to address your concerns. It could be that you need additional support, but maybe it will be an easy fix. That is why we are here! If your anxiety is debilitating and you do not believe it is something you can address on your own or goes beyond the scope of coaching, speak with a therapist.
When Amanda Rowan initially worked with test-takers, the common mode of preparing for licensing exams was by reading through stacks and stacks of books, literally! People would spend month after month reading detailed information on the names and numbers of legal codes, memorizing minutiae that would never be tested, and putting their lives on hold until they took their exams. Therapist Development Center’s exam prep programs were born out of the idea that the information needed to pass the exam could be streamlined, engaging, and that we could provide you with enough content and practice to take the exam all while still taking care of yourself. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by excessive amounts of information, our program provides a clear study plan and coaches to help when needed. And while this approach does not completely eliminate test anxiety, it can help quell it significantly! And remember, a little bit of anxiety is actually good!
Still haven’t signed up for an exam preparation program? Our structured, straightforward approach to exam prep will provide you with exactly what you need to pass your social work exam or MFT exam and nothing you don’t. You can learn more about our social work licensing exam prep or our our MFT licensing exam prep by clicking one of the links below.
We have a 95% success rate and look forward to helping you PASS your exam with confidence!