For many of you, college is the best time of your life. While the freedom and friendships made are incredibly exciting, for some, it isn’t all parties and fun. Instead, it can be quite a negative experience.
Many college students I’ve worked with cite anxiety and stress as their biggest complaint. Studies show that this is only increasing for many students. A large number of students express overwhelm with the workload, fears related to exams, and testing as a big part of their distress.
If this sounds all too familiar, then try out the following tips and exercises to help lower your anxiety before the next big exam.
FIND YOUR BREATH
Focusing on your breath can do wonders for grounding and settling your nerves. Adding deep breathing is even more beneficial. I like the 7-11 breath, i.e., in for seven counts though your nose and gentle breath for 11 counts out through your mouth. Another technique uses progressive muscle relaxation and along with deep breathing. For example, from your head to toes or vice versa, tense large muscle groups sequentially for 10 (ten) seconds, for example your lower leg area including feet, shins calves and toes, release, then breathe deeply into your lower abdomen area, akin to filling up a balloon, followed by breathing out slowly. Next engage the abdomen area, chest and back areas, etc., releasing each followed by breathing in deeply and releasing. Do this for two minutes to initiate relaxation and improve focus. These simple deep breathing techniques stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which can slow your heart rate and help minimize flight, flight, freeze, or forget-it reactions you may experience.
ADJUST YOUR PERSPECTIVE
How you interpret and subsequently think/speak to yourself about your challenges can contribute to either a feeling of anxiety or calm. For example, you may start to think negatively about an upcoming test, leading to you to say to yourself, “If I don’t absolutely know everything, I’ll fail” or, “I performed poorly on the past test, I’m sure I will do the same on this one” even if you have taken the time to prepare, another example could be, “My life is ruined if I don’t pass this exam.” Perspectives like these can leave you feeling before you’ve even taken the test. You are participating in unhelpful or distorted thinking patterns such as all-or-nothing thinking, over-generalizing, and catastrophizing. Instead, practice using neutral or even positive self-talk when possible.
To interpret and promote neutral self- talk means to clearly and objectively describe a situation without the addition of embellishments. One example may look like, “I’ve studied to best of my ability; however, I know there may be some questions I am not familiar with, but I can explore options beforehand on how I will handle those questions.” Another example, “I know failing this test may affect my grade significantly. However, I can prepare to the best of my ability and seek help ahead of time of areas I struggle with.” These types of approaches can help to increase your coping, reduce your stress and worry, and help you to plan more effectively vs. panicking. Practice looking at stressful situations more neutrally or positively and similarly use neutral or positive self -talk. Having a better attitude will, more often than not, contribute to more relaxed feelings and clearer thinking.
IMPROVE TEST-TAKING SKILLS
If you haven’t already, try to figure out what is the test-taking skill that works best for you. Is it taking a few moments to write down (if allowed) brief information as the outset of the test to have as a reference? Or is it going through the test and answering all the questions you’re sure of then circling back and completing the remainder of the questions? Or do you prefer to methodically go through the test, making a note of those you are unsure of and reviewing at the end? Whatever the method, make sure it gives you both self- confidence and is efficient enough for you to complete your exam on time.
Balance any fears you may have with reality. Rather than focusing on what might go wrong, focus on what has gone right and remind yourself of this. For example, are you the type of student that makes an effort and puts your best foot forward? Examine throughout your test-taking history, have there been times that you’ve done well? Most likely, there have been a few or even several examples you can point to. This approach can help you feel more positive. Also, ask yourself, have you done your best preparing? If you haven’t prepared adequately, accept this reality versus avoiding it, minimizing it, or being fearful of this fact.
Accepting reality will help you to better deal with challenging situations as they arise and can help you find appropriate solutions quicker. Doing these mental exercises, will assist you by shifting your fixation from debilitating fears and promote a more positive and hopeful feelings. This process will be beneficial in helping you to stay calm.
INCORPORATE EXERCISE AND SELF-CARE
Whether it’s traditional exercise or some other activity, like yoga, Pilates, dance, or even walking, any form of movement and activity can be stress-relieving and mood-enhancing. Exercise is known to improve blood flow to the brain while releasing endorphins, the “feel-good hormone.” For some, light movement just before an exam helps make them feel more alert, awake, and focused. Being intentional and giving attention to your self-care is an integral part of creating a foundation for success in test-taking and your overall college life.
I hope these tips were helpful. If you would like additional information and help in managing stress or combating anxiety, please contact me today.
For Pre-college students, I offer a once a year Stress Management and Anxiety Reduction Group. Check it out here.