It’s your final exam of your final class of your final day of your final week before summer vacation. There’s a student sniffing back his cold in the far corner, someone else is clicking her pen, and you are staring at a seemingly impossible question. Are your eyes starting to blur? Are you hands sweating? Does your stomach hurt? For some students, test anxiety can be a nightmare, and although you can’t cure anxiety, you can get through finals week.
Dr. Robert Wells, psychologist in the Northern Kentucky University Health Services Center, said that though stress and anxiety are often interchanged, stress isn’t diagnosable. “If you are completely prepared for a test but are still extremely anxious, it’s usually not just the test,” Wells said. He also said test anxiety often comes from focusing on the negative voices in your life.
“Think about all the tests you’ve taken,” he said. “Now think about how many of those you’ve failed. It’s probably only a few, but those are the ones that stand out.”
So how do you know if you have actual test anxiety or if you’re just stressed out? Wells said that stress is a biological adaptive response to certain situations, and if you can’t overcome those feelings with preparation and relaxation, it could be anxiety.
“It’s physically impossible to be anxious and calm at the same time. Stress and anxiety are like light switches,” Wells said. “Some people just can turn the switch off after the test is over.”
However, Wells was quick to point out that if you’re not rested and prepared, you’re not going to perform well, but in that case, anxiety isn’t the problem.
Think of yourself as the Energizer Bunny. “At the beginning of the semester you are all charged up and ready to go,” Wells said. “But as the semester drags on, you start to wear down and, by finals week, your batteries are about to die. You have to recharge.”
He also said that regardless of your recharging techniques, you have to set aside time to do it. “If you don’t have time to sleep, time to take a bath, time to watch television, time to do whatever it is you need to do to relax, you need to work on your time management,” Wells said.
Samantha Leighton, a junior early education major, understands how important recharging is to her finals success. “I don’t work as much, or sleep as much, during finals week,” she said. “But you have to find time to relax, if you’re all worked up, you won’t retain the information.”
However, some students wait until the last minute to cram for finals, which can increase stress and make an “A” nearly impossible. Lizzy Milligan, an undeclared freshman, said, “Sometimes I have time to study, but I get distracted and that’s when it’s like ‘study? What’s that?'”
MySpace, Facebook and instant messaging can make studying at a computer difficult. When the time for studying approaches, try to focus on just that. Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many distractions – your profile updates can wait.
OK, remember those sweaty palms? What do you do if you are prepared for the test, but the drive to campus makes you physically ill and the words on the exam still make your eyes blurry? Have you ever heard of a happy place? Go to it.
“Imagine a comfortable place: The beach, the woods, your bed, wherever a good place is for you,” Wells said. “You need to use all five senses to make this relaxation technique work. Can you smell the ocean? Can you hear the waves and people laughing in the background? The more senses you incorporate, the more relaxed you can become.”
But don’t wait until the middle of your exam to try it out. “If you practice going to your place, you’ll be able to get there pretty quickly,” Wells said. “When is the best time to practice a free throw? Not when you are on the court and your team is down one point. Don’t wait until the last minute to try your techniques.”
However, relaxation isn’t the only way to energize yourself – breakfast is still the most important meal of the day. Nancy Zwick, registered dietician and adjunct professor, said that breakfast benefits both attention and focus. “Of course, my first advice is not to wait until the last minute to prepare,” she said. “But breakfast is very important. It can help you focus during finals, and every day.”
Flavonoids, chemicals found in foods such as eggplant and grapes, have been shown to help improve memory. “Hopefully, most students are relying on memory for their finals,” Zwick said. “Try to enjoy a blue or purple fruit or vegetable with breakfast.” She said the perfect exam day breakfast would include a high-fiber whole-grain cereal with skim milk and a piece of fresh fruit.
Zwick also advised to lay off caffeine and energy drinks. “Caffeine actually makes you unable to focus,” she said. “Sure, you’ll be awake, but you won’t be doing as well on the test as you could be.” Energy drinks also have their dangers. “Those are the other things that worry me with students. Energy drinks have a lot of stuff in them that’s not regulated. They aren’t something that you should depend on.”
Even if you are prepared for the exam and have eaten a good breakfast, it wouldn’t be wise to take your finals without getting a good night’s sleep. Although spending those extra hours studying may seem like a good idea, going without sleep will keep you from being able to focus on anything, including your tests. “It’s more important to get the sleep,” Zwick said. “If you are trying to study when you’re tired, you aren’t going to remember anything.”
Some Web sites and professors recommend exercise to stimulate your brain, but drastically changing your routine to include exercise may actually strain you physically and mentally. “Exercise can stimulate the mind and improve clarity and memory,” Zwick said. “But if it’s not your typical routine then it may add some pressure.”
So study, eat, relax and sleep to score an “A” on your finals. Wells reminds students that once you’re at the test, don’t give up. “The mental game is the hardest part of the sport. You know you have the skills,” he said. “Just don’t give up mentally.”