I can remember how to do this question...after I remember how to breathe.
November 11, 2009 11:43 PM   Subscribe

Help me stop freaking out during my exams.

I'm an undergrad in a chemistry program. I think my woes is probably shared by quite a few people out there.

To put it plainly: I have exam anxiety. Bad exam anxiety. I took time off of school to do work experience related to my program; coming back to exams and reports ad infinitum is not doing much for my nerves, which were used to overtime and work stress but also the ability to leave stressors at work instead of taking them home with me (ie. homework).

I've always been the anxious type, but my nerves go into overdrive during exams. My hands were literally shaking when I was writing my midterms last week, even for a course I knew pretty well; I had to keep talking to myself that "calm down, I know this shit, it's just blah blah..." to keep myself from going into full out panic mode. A friend who had sat beside me remarked to me after the exam that "geez, you were loud, I had to divert part of my focus to tuning you out" (note: I'm not loud enough to make anyone suspect I'm cheating; it's more just background mutterings that's annoying but not intelligible).

I just got back a midterm that I had spectacularly failed; it doesn't make me feel much better that 54% of the rather large class failed with me. It's my second time taking the course (failed it once previously during a very bad year); I need this course (quantum, which I've always hated) for my degree, and the thought of me not passing it is...rather terrifying. But when I look at the midterm, there are several parts I knew perfectly well how to do...just that in my nervousness I completely forgot basic rules of differentiation and looked like someone who never even took Calculus 12. I'm not great at the course and probably will never be, but at the very least, even if I won't ace it, I want to at least pass it. And blanking out over math I know how to do is not gonna do my grades any favours, for quantum or otherwise. (It perhaps doesn't help that I'm in a hellaciously stressful term and regularly spending 18 hours a day or so at school, out of necessity.)

So, Mefites: what do I do? Are there calming vitamins to take? Meditation? Something to at least get me through exam times? (Note: I'm not exactly into the drugs scene, so I don't think suggestions of pot will help me here.)

Also: I know the stuff about getting a good meal and a good night's sleep before the exam, and, well, studying to begin with. Can't say I can promise on the sleep bit (my anxiety for the quantum midterm kept me from getting a good night's rest...I'm thinking of dosing myself with Benadryl come finals), but I'm pretty good about the rest.

Feel free to ask for more details if necessary.
posted by Hakaisha to Education (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You really should talk to your instructors. If you are having bad test anxiety and it is affecting your grades that badly, it is very likely they will be able to accommodate you by allowing you to take the test separately with more time (ie. time so you can freak out, calm down, and then do your best work). Maybe not, but I know I have been in many classes where this would have been no problem.
posted by flavor at 12:21 AM on November 12, 2009

I get this education anxiety, but more about assignments that are due, not so much for exams.

I was able to go and see a counsellor, and we did some Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (I think)- basically I was able to vent heaps. You don't have to be in the thick of the exams in order to get help with the anxiety. See if you can get some help through your uni. I know it's an expense, but it has been well worth it.

I feel for you!
posted by titanium_geek at 12:26 AM on November 12, 2009

Oh, also- St Johns wart is a herbal thing that I have taken- it seems to have an affect- it may be just placebo, but they do claim to help positive mood balance.
posted by titanium_geek at 12:27 AM on November 12, 2009

wort, not wart.. embarrassment!
posted by titanium_geek at 1:07 AM on November 12, 2009

I think counseling definitely could help, and try talking to your teachers to see if you can get a little extra time. Even 10 additional minutes could help.

In the short term, one of the things that helps me is to do a "brain dump" immediately upon receiving the exam. Basically, I get a piece of scratch paper and use the first 3-5 minutes or so to just write down a bunch of facts/formulae/theorems/etc that I've memorized for the exam. Then I start on the exam. Somehow, writing down things I know without the pressure of answering a question helps, and also, I can refer to that information as I answer the questions. Once I get in the groove of thinking about the stuff on the test, things get better, and I can focus. (And if not, well at least I got something down on the page that shows I'm not a complete idiot. But most often it works.) I got this idea from a friend's mother who does research in math anxiety.

Other suggestions she gave me were to prepare as if I was in a test taking situation. So the night before take some practice problems, go sit in an empty classroom, and do them without books or anything. She also said doing a "warm-up" right before the test can help. Meaning on the way to the test maybe do one easyish problem just to get your brain working. I'm not sure this will work for you, but it's worth a try if you have a test coming up.
posted by bluefly at 2:59 AM on November 12, 2009

Seconding that brain dump. I do that on any test requiring formulas. Hell, I even sorta do it on essay questions (so, like, for compare/contrast Theodore/Franklin Roosevelt, I'll list a bunch of facts for each in a couple of columns, get a rough idea for an outline of the essay, and then get to work). It really helps me focus and keep my time in check. I don't feel lost in the dark; I have a clear path and I just need to hit all of those points I just wrote down.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 4:07 AM on November 12, 2009

Best answer: Your school's counseling center should be able to help. You say you're not "into the drugs scene", but I don't know if that means you are against legal prescription meds. A counselor may suggest beta blockers or anxiolytics, neither of which (I'm told--no firsthand experience) makes you feel "high" or "stoned" so much as "not freaking out". That's the feeling you want. You should not go into the center expecting meds. Go in with an open mind. Do yourself a favor and make an appointment today. It's easier than writing an AskMeFi post!

Your school may also have something like what my school calls "Learning Assistance Services". They may, on their own or in coordination with the counseling center, provide you with an alternative testing location, if that might help. You could have a room to yourself with extra time, for example. Obviously I can't guarantee that exactly. That's the sort of accommodation that might be made.

Don't be scared about using these resources. Many students are, despite the fact that the resources can be incredibly valuable. If the suggestions provided by the professionals aren't working out, let them know ASAP! Other options are certainly available. Best of luck.
posted by knile at 5:31 AM on November 12, 2009

Your institution might have an academic support office or a learning center with tutor somewhere. And in that office or learning center, there is probably an educational specialist who can sit and talk with you about what goes one when you take an exam. This specialist can work with you to determine if you need an alternate testing environment/conditions or if you just need to learn some neat test-taking tricks to calm yourself.

I've referred about half a dozen students in the last three semesters to our resource center for precisely this same thing. At worst it'll take an hour of your time, at somewhere between worst and best it'll get you some help that will assist you in performing better.
posted by zizzle at 6:34 AM on November 12, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. I should've been clearer: I'm not against taking prescription meds or, say, some vitamins or something, but I'm not a fan of the idea of "just smoke some pot an hour before your final" or some such.

My Google-fu might be failing me; I can't seem to find an Learning Assistance-esque centre on my school website (even though we're big enough that we should have one). However, the counselling centre is readily available; I'll stop by to make an appointment today.

Further suggestions are also deeply appreciated! Thanks again, everyone. =)
posted by Hakaisha at 8:00 AM on November 12, 2009

Talk to your teachers. They are your best resource in terms of finding out what the expectations of the course are. Talk to your school's learning resources center and see if they offer any kind of exam anxiety seminar.

If there are practice exams available to you, take them. If possible, in the same room that you'll take the exam in, and timed. Sometimes, for me, this meant taking practice exams at 9 or 10 at night.

Above all, remember that panic is essentially not a useful emotion here. It blocks your ability to think rationally, and enhances your desire to escape from the situation. Get yourself to the point that you will feel comfortable taking exams. Build a pre-exam ritual that you do for every exam, every time you take it. When you feel the panic setting in, close your eyes and take a deep breath and just sit for a minute. Taking a break might seem contrary to test performance when the test is timed, but if it helps you perform better on the questions you get right, you're better off than if you just bulldoze through.
posted by honeybee413 at 8:05 AM on November 12, 2009

Response by poster: ...so I just stopped by the counselling office and am told that scheduled appointments are booked all the way 'til early/mid December. I have drop-in as an option, but that necessitates coming by the office about 45 minutes before it opens, wait in line, and hope I can get an appointment that suits my schedule. O_o

Wow. Didn't have any idea counselling services are that booked.

I'm going to try my hand at drop-ins, although given my class schedule coming right as the doors are open isn't easy. In the meanwhile, I'd appreciate self-help, pep talks, etc. like what honeybee413 wrote.

Thanks, all!
posted by Hakaisha at 10:39 AM on November 12, 2009

Best answer: A few things:

Before an exam, don't stand around or talk with any classmates about the exam, what they studied, etc. Don't even be in the general area of where the exam is going to take place as you're pretty much guaranteed that there will be a group of people waiting and discussing and freaking out. If you have to be there, put in your headphones and zone out. I used to hear things like "I studied X" and I'd freak out because I didn't study X but then I'd take the exam and realize that X wasn't even being tested on.

Be chill. It's easier to say than do but put yourself in the mindset that you are the most relaxed person in the world and that you're about to write an exam that you're going to ravage.

While you study and before you take the exam say "I'm going to DESTROY this exam" and picture yourself actually owning it.

Think about the worst case scenario. You fail the exam. Maybe you'll fail the class. Maybe you won't be able to take a class that requires this as a pre-req next semester. Big deal. You're not going to die, no one is going to be injured, you will still be attractive, and you will have a future. Everyone I know has failed an exam, or two, or three. Now, I'm not saying you shouldn't care, you should, and that's why you studied but the moment you're about to write the exam, forget about it.
posted by 913 at 8:38 PM on November 12, 2009

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