How to Conquer Test and Performance Anxiety

“I’m just not a good test taker.”

Liars (all around the world)

Why Anxiety?

Test and performance anxiety can be completely debilitating. Anxiety in general can destroy the best of us, but it can be overcome. First, we have to understand why we get anxiety in the first place.

Our brains have a threat detection system that’s constantly examining our surroundings. I talk a little bit about this in my post The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1). When it notices something that could be a potential threat, now or in the future, it immediately tries to solve that problem. Our minds are constantly preparing for the worst-case scenario.

Needless to say, this process is stressful and if overdone could lead to anxiety. When our brains don’t know what to prepare for, this is exactly what happens. If the brain detects a potential threat but doesn’t know how to prepare for it, then it will try to prepare for everything.

Like literally everything.

Our minds will want to prepare us for a panther attack from the tress, and the next economic crash, and embarrassing moments, and food shortages, and life beyond school, and…and…and…you get the idea.

We are anxious because we’re trying to solve every possible problem at the same time, which is impossible. Our minds work hard to find solutions and when it can’t, it works even harder. At this point, our bodies will use their stress responses which have physiological effects. Our bloodstreams get flooded with cortisol and adrenalin, which is super useful in the short term, but terrible crippling over the medium to long term. This is why anxiety can be so taxing on the body.

These stress response systems aren’t entirely terrible. After all, they are fantastic indicators for potential threats now and in the future which is awesome because we can use that to our advantage. In the context of education, this means we can use our anxiety to determine if we have sufficiently prepared ourselves. This is a slippery slope and takes practice to identify how much anxiety is enough, but it’s a powerful skill once it’s been honed. The biggest difference between unnecessary anxiety and beneficial anxiety lies in our habits.

How much have we actually prepared for the threats in front of us?

How many hours have we put in to earn the calm?

Coping with Anxiety

“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

In terms of education and test-taking, anxiety can arise from not knowing what to prepare for. A big part of conquering anxiety is understanding why we get it, then taking the steps to solve the threats in front of us.

When riddled with anxiety, many people become paralyzed. Often it can seem like it’s impossible to move when anxiety has taken over. Not surprising considering that freezing is the first step of the stress response. I talk more about this and how to overcome it in The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 2). Part of getting through that paralysis is defining what it is we are anxious about.

Remember, our minds are constantly working to solve problems, and if the problem is not clear than our mind spins out and anxiety takes over. Conquering anxiety equals defining anxiety. We have to take the time to discover what it is that we are actually anxious about. I recommend writing it down and using Tim Ferriss’ Fear Setting Exercise. Once we discover what the worse case is, we can work on making that specific situation better, or if we can’t, then we can work to cap the downside – make sure the losses aren’t too extreme and/or irrecoverable.

“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)

Defining what needs to get done and what needs to be understood is incredibly powerful. I’ve noticed that whenever I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed it’s because the tasks I need to complete aren’t crystal clear. When my goals are as clearly stated as actions that I need to take in the real world, the anxiety melts away.

For this reason, I’m a huge advocate of checklists. They are a fantastic tool for taking the huge ideas we have up in the sky and bringing them down to Earth in bite-sized actionable steps. I recommend reading The Checklist Manifesto. Dr. Atul Gawande beautifully outlines the power of checklists, how to make good checklists, and how to get everything done right. I’ll definitely be writing something on that book later down the line. His insight on checklists in unparalleled and incredibly powerful.

Get things articulated in small and simple tasks.

Another fantastic way of coping with anxiety is to shorten our timelines. When stress is high, focus on small increments of time. The higher the stress, the smaller the increment. Don’t worry about what’s going to happen in a year, or a month, or a week, or a day, or an hour. Focus on what’s right in front of you, even if that means tuning out everything and focusing on just getting through the next few seconds.

I’ve noticed that when I’m extremely stressed out, it helps to just focus on the next 3 seconds. I get through my rough patches 3 seconds at a time. When I’m less stressed, I’m in a more visionary state and I’m able to create and execute plans over weeks or (when I’m really on) months.

Focusing on the seconds or focusing on the months, time will pass either way. Adjusting our timeframes is a powerful way of maintaining control especially when we’re wrestling with something like anxiety.

I also talk more about anxiety and their relationship to education in my posts Strategies for Better Studying Part 2 and Part 3.

Yerkes-Dodson Law

Performance vs. Arousal Hebbian Yerkes-Dodson Curve

The Yerkes-Dodson Law is a relationship between nervous system arousal and performance developed by American psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson. The law states that arousal in the nervous system (stress) can actually help with performance, but only up to a certain point. In high amounts, arousal could be detrimental to performance (as most people with test anxiety know too well). This knowledge is powerful because it suggests that we actually need some level of stress to perform at our best. Most people’s natural reaction to test anxiety is to try to get rid of all of it, but we actually want to hold on to some of that stress. Yerkes-Dodson also suggests that if we’re not stimulated enough then our performance will suffer as well.

The graphic above shows the Hebbian Yerkes-Dodson Curve which is a simplified version of the original curve. It leaves our hyperarousal effect on simple tasks and the differentiation between difficult and simple tasks. There are a ton of interesting findings related to performance and stress that developed as a result of this work. For example, intellectually demanding tasks may require lower levels of arousal for concentration whereas tasks demanding persistence may require higher levels of arousal for motivation. Because of this, different tasks may have different Yerkes-Dodson curves but the Hebbian version is a solid average of most tasks.

Understanding the Yerkes-Dodson curve is crucial for managing stress and anxiety specifically to enhance or maintain a certain level of performance. We don’t want to completely avoid stress altogether, we just want to manage it enough to prevent performance impairment.

Stress Management

“Stress is a result of a lack of structure.”

Touré Roberts (1972 – )

When managing stress, we want to keep good stress (eustress) and let go of bad stress (distress). Here are a couple of methods that I use to help with stress management:

Entering the Sleep-like Brain States. Meditation, driving long distances, running, breathing, showering, and cleaning are a few of the things I do to get my mind in a sleep-like state. Taking time to unplug and step back from working on whatever I’m working on helps decrease my nervous system arousal. Most of the time, our brains are doing “duration, path, outcome” operations. It’s obsessed with how long something will take, the path we will take to get there, and what will happen once it’s all over. These are most of the operations we do in our day-to-day lives, but it’s taxing on the brain. Entering the sleep-like states replenishes our ability to continue using the “duration, path outcome” operations.

Define the stressor. Similar to anxiety, half of the battle is clearly understanding what it is that is stressing you out. I try to get this out in my journaling or other reflective writing. Honestly, sometimes I’ll just write what’s stressing me out in my notes app just so I have something to externalize my thoughts onto. This helps because once something is clearly defined, we can take the steps necessary to solve the problem.

Eating healthy and regularly. Studies have shown that eating breakfast regularly helps with mood stabilization. It’s also much more difficult to perform when our blood glucose levels are low. Doing difficult and stressful tasks requires a higher cognitive load. The higher demand for our mental faculty calls for higher physical demands on nutrition. It’s much easier to get stressed when we’re hungry. We can eliminate any extra stress but keeping our bodies happy and healthy.

On that note, avoiding stimulants. Caffeine is a big one. Caffeine and other uppers hype up the activity in the central nervous system, they literally chemically increase our arousal. All of our emotional states, like stress, are related to biochemical ratios in our bodies. Everyone’s body is a little different, and I urge everyone to pay attention to how each of the things they ingest makes them feel. We can control a surprising amount of our emotions from controlling what we take in. I personally try to keep off stimulating chemicals when I’m highly stressed. However, I do use caffeine on occasion if I don’t have the energy levels required to perform my best. Basically, I recommend generally avoiding stimulants but if you really want to try to only use them if your arousal levels are lower than the sweet spot.

This last method I wouldn’t try unless you need to really calm down. Six deep breaths trigger a parasympathetic response. If we can manage to get 6 deep breaths in, when the exhale is longer than the inhale, then our bodies take that as a signal to relax and starts to turn on our parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our brain the relaxes us. This is a physical way of lowering nervous system arousal.

Be aware that we do need some stress in order to perform at our best, so don’t just try to find ways to eliminate stress. It’s all about finding balance.

Confidence and Anxiety

Confidence has a significant relationship with anxiety. If we don’t believe that we can overcome a challenge, it’s really easy for us to shut down. We won’t prepare for the dangers to come and our minds will make us more and more uneasy as the danger gets closer. Confidence gives us a fighting chance to overcome anxiety. Without confidence, anxiety will win every time.

How to Increase Confidence

The tricky part about confidence is that we need to prove to ourselves that we have confidence before we can start having it. I talk a little bit about this in my post, The Relationship with Ourselves.

Rather than trying to talk ourselves into acting confident, we need to show ourselves that we are capable and get some wins under our belt. There are a few ways to do this. One of my favorite recommendations is to go out and learn something. Literally anything. Find a skill that has always seemed interesting and learn about it. Practice it. Invest in it. Confidence is a side-effect of watching yourself kick ass at something. People who are good at things are confident. People who seem confident, but aren’t competent are just arrogant. If you take shortcuts, you’ll know and you won’t exude genuine confidence. Building a relationship with ourselves and knowing ourselves as someone who is authentically confident is difficult and takes time, but it’s totally worth it.

Focus on building an identity and creating solid habits. Those are perfect ways of developing confidence within ourselves because when cultivating identity and habits, we’re already making constant little wins.

Last Thoughts on Anxiety

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)

“There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives!”

Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)

Two different men from vastly different times and they’re saying the same thing. It’s not worth it to worry. Any suffering we are to bear will be experienced when we experience it. If the practices in this most don’t help, try to find ways to not participate in the madness of anticipating pain. Sometimes I drive myself crazy worrying about the future, but other times I can catch myself and remember that I’m only hurting myself by thinking that way.

Not all of our thoughts are true. Not all of our thoughts are useful.

I also recommend reading Stoic philosophy to learn how to operate in times of high stress and anxiety. Letters from a Stoic and On the Shortness of Life by Seneca are fantastic pieces of work and are both on my Must-Read Book List.

“Life is suffering.”

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Suffering, pain, death, and misfortune are all a part of life. Rejecting these parts makes things harder than they already are. If we learn to embrace hardships and learn to love our fate, amor fati, then maybe we will be relieved of a little pain.

In life, we perform. We are always performing. If people depend on us, we need to perform. Learning how to thrive when it is our time to shine is a skill that translates beautifully in any field. I consider performing to be a powerful meta-skill worth taking on.

During my freshman year of college, my friend and I performed at open mics twice a week and it really helped with my performance anxiety. The first time I went up on stage, my voice was shaky and played all of our songs super fast because subconsciously I wanted to get off the stage as fast as possible. But by the end of the first semester, the stage felt like my natural habitat and was a place for me to thrive and shine.

We get better at anything with deliberate practice and time. Performance and test-taking are just other skills to develop. Focus on developing yourself and giving your all. Know exactly what you need to conquer and be mindful of your stress levels and management techniques. Everyone can be a great test-taker, it just takes a little work.