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Altering Self-Talk for Test Anxiety

Self-talk is the conversation we have most of the time that exists just on the edge of our awareness, and which shapes our view of ourselves and the world in powerful ways. With practice, we can learn to become aware of this internal monologue. Self-talk is learned, and habitual, and may not be accurate or rational, although it always sounds like the truth. (“I am so ugly”  “No one likes me”  “I can’t do it”).  Unfortunately, irrational self-talk can escalate anxiety into panic.

Our body responds to thoughts that indicate danger with the physical symptoms that evolved to help us deal with danger (fight or flight response). If our irrational thoughts tell us that our college career, and even our very lives, will be down the tubes if we fail a test, and that we are dumb and likely to fail, we will experience physical symptoms of anxiety. However, if we can learn to identify our self talk, decide what makes sense and rewrite the parts of the conversation that are irrational, we will have significantly less anxiety.

Negative self-talk for creating test anxiety:

  • I will never be able to do this; I always screw up.
  • My mind is blank; I will never get the answer.
  • There isn’t enough time to finish everything; I’ll never get through this test.
  • I feel so sick that everyone must be able to see how stupid I am.
  • I am going to fail this class and get kicked out of school because of this test.
  • I can’t stand feeling this overwhelmed. I can’t take this test.
  • This is hopeless; the professor must think I’m an idiot.
  • This always happens, I can never do it; I am going to be kicked out of school.
  • I know I will blank out and forget everything. My life is over.

Positive self-talk for managing test anxiety:

  • I might feel nervous, but I can handle it.
  • I can stay calm, and have prepared well.
  • This is only anxiety–I’ve been through this before.
  • Just breathe and relax.
  • I can get through this. 
  • I have plenty of time; I don’t need to rush.
  • Feeling anxious won’t harm me. The feeling will get less intense if I wait it out.
  • I can feel afraid and still get through this.
  • I can focus my attention on what I really have to do.
  • I can take some deep slow breaths, and feel more calm.
  • My muscles feel tight.  I can take a minute to stretch before I begin.
  • This is not the most important thing in my life.  I can survive this experience.

Take time while studying for a test to listen to the self-talk you are experiencing. Write it down, and decide if it is positive or negative. If it is negative, practice writing a more positive thought to challenge or replace the negative thought. Take some time to rehearse becoming aware of your self-talk and replacing negative thoughts with more positive thoughts before the test. Then, when you are feeling uncomfortable in a testing situation this will be a skill you can call on to manage your anxiety.

For instance:  “My mind is blank, I’ll never get the answer” can be replaced with:

“I can take some deep slow breaths to calm down and work on the questions I am able to answer, then come back to this one.”