Dear Ally,

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Dealing with Test Anxiety

Dear Ally,

I have a very specific memory from my freshmen year chemistry class. This class was my first college chemistry class, but it was during my second quarter (we had 3 quarters per year instead of 2 semesters). There were about a hundred people in the class, maybe more. Anyway we had lecture in this large theater type room with the tiny  fold-down desks and the rows that rose up as you went farther back. We were starting the first or second exam and my mind went blank and I began to panic. My heart pounded and my hands got shaky. I had never experienced anything like that during an exam before. I don’t know why it happened either because that class was not particularly hard for me because I’d had most of the material in high school and I had studied.

Anyway, I think part of it was because I had started to psyche myself out thinking, “What if I can’t remember anything? What if I fail?” Since chemistry was my chosen field there was a little bit more at stake in this class than my other classes. I was able to pull myself out of this downward spiral of thinking and pause and think rationally for a moment. “What if I actually fail, even though it’s unlikely? I probably won’t fail the class, there are still other exams. Even if I fail the class, it’s not the end of the world. I’m not going to die.”

I have not had any more exam experiences as intense as that one, but this is pretty much my self-pep talk for any time I’m nervous: “Calm down. You’re not going to die.” It really helps me to put things in perspective. Another thing I like to ask myself is: “Is this going to matter in 10 years? Are you even going to remember this in 10 years?” The truth is I have no idea what I got on that exam. I know I didn’t fail it and I’m pretty sure I skipped the beginning that freaked me out and went on to a question that I could remember and went back to the first page later.

Feeling somewhat anxious during a test is normal because, after all, it does matter and if you didn’t care, you probably shouldn’t be there.  A friend that I played in a praise band with said that he would quit if the butterflies ever disappeared. The symptoms of anxiety are part of our sympathetic nervous system, which triggers our body’s fight-or-flight response. They include dilated pupils, dry mouth, inability to urinate, and inhibited peristalsis or as my biology colleague quips, “can’t see, can spit, can’t pee, can’t shit.” (There’s a mnemonic for you! You may have already learned this in biology.)

There are plenty of ways to prevent and cope with test anxiety. Prevention is done mostly in the days leading up to the exam: practicing and studying to gain confidence, getting a good night’s sleep, eating well, and exercising. My organic chemistry professor suggested eating niacin-rich foods before exams. It’s also wise to avoid caffeine, sugar, and other stimulants as these will increase your heart rate and make you feel nervous, even if you’re not. Take the exam in comfortable clothing and in a comfortable location (as possible). I find chewing gum to be calming. Then, during the exam, it’s a matter of taking your time, focusing on one question at a time, and staying positive.

Another tactic I’ve found to be extremely helpful is to avoid studying immediately before the exam. I had this belief that whatever I crammed into my brain at the last minute in a desperate attempt to memorize, would dislodge something that I’d actually learned, so I was almost superstitious about not studying within half an hour of test time. I always hated overhearing the other students in the hallway freaking out about this or that concept. I would walk by like, “La la la. I can’t hear you.” Although my belief is probably not true, studying right before an exam can increase anxiety.

Don’t forget to breathe! I have passed out several times, not because of exams, but in other anxiety-inducing situations. Apparently it’s because I hyperventilate, breathing out too much carbon dioxide, which then causes my blood vessels to constrict, limiting blood to my brain, and I pass out (more biology for you). I learned this from my dentist who told me to focus on breathing evenly in and out, if I feel anxious. Thanks to her and my yoga teacher, I haven’t passed out since your uncle had that ureter scope procedure. I can even give blood without passing out, although I feel like I will. I still warn people that I’m a fainter though, just in case.

Good luck on your next exam! Don’t stress!

Aunt Sarah


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