One of the most annoying things about tests, interviews, or any other scenario that involves being judged, is that as much as you can study, recite your pitch, or frantically Google "multiple choice guessing techniques," your anxiety can still trip you up.
It's totally normal to get some jitters before a big exam or presentation, but if that nervousness debilitates you to the point of blanking out or not being able to get through whatever it is you need to do, that's when it can get harmful.
"In and of itself, having test anxiety is not a problem until it becomes a problem," says Debra Kissen, PhD, clinical director at Light on Anxiety. "If you felt zero test anxiety, you wouldn’t do anything."
A small amount of performance anxiety when you're set for a job interview or scheduled for a standardised test, pushes you to prepare as well as you can. Tamar Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, says that there's a "sweet spot" in experiencing anxiety where you have enough of it to motivate you, but it isn't so overwhelming that you freeze. But sometimes, anxiety sets off a fight-or-flight reaction, where your brain basically taps into your survival instincts.
"The reason why people go blank on tests because they can’t think [clearly] — that part of the brain isn’t engaged," she says. "The part of the brain that’s engaged is the fight-or-flight. You’re thinking, How do I stay alive here? It's hyperbolic to put it that way, but that’s what’s going on in your body."
You have to tolerate uncertainty.
Debra Kissen, PhD
Beyond the physical symptoms that come with a fight-or-flight reaction, like sweaty palms and an increased heart rate, anxiety might also cause you to be distracted, focusing on the possible outcome instead of what's in front of you. And, since anxiety involves being worried about something that's going to happen in the future, or at least something that can potentially happen, you can try to quell it by focusing on the present.
"The best way to cut through that anxiety is to think about your purpose, so whether that’s a job interview, giving a talk, or going on a date, it’s really about [asking], what are you trying to do, and then how are you going to do it?" Dr. Chansky says. "And then you’re connected with yourself, and you’re not thinking about the critic inside analysing what you’re doing."
That inner-critic might tell you that you're going to fail no matter what, but that's not necessarily true. And, while you might never totally get rid of the fear of failure, Dr. Kissen says that she often has her patients actually practice failing, in whatever way that might look like.
"I once worked with a woman who was a concert violinist, and we practiced her playing the wrong tune, and stopping and having to start again," she says, adding that this is a form of exposure therapy that helps people get more comfortable with all possible outcomes. And, being ready for any outcome (even if it's just an outcome in theory) means that you'll actually make an effort to prepare for the results you want.
"Some people are so anxious about a performance situation that they create a self-fulfilling prophecy by avoiding preparing, and then the reality becomes true, that you should be anxious because you’re not ready for it," Dr. Chansky says. "This is how anxiety can be dysfunctional: Some people feel so stressed thinking about something, that they just avoid it and then they really set themselves up for failure."
But keep in mind, over-preparing can actually add to anxiety. Instead of reassuring you that you're ready, Dr. Kissen says that it can cause you to get so wrapped up in everything that might come up in a presentation — or every question you'll get on a test — and that's not helpful. At a certain point, you just have to accept that you've studied and done all you that you can.
"Your anxiety can say that you’re not ready, and that’s where fact-checking with yourself can be really helpful," Dr. Chansky says. "Tell yourself: Well I studied, I usually do well, I think this time won't be different. Ask yourself: Have I done the work I need to for this?"
And, if all else fails, try to embrace your anxiety. You might get nervous, but that doesn't mean that you'll bomb your test or make a fool out of yourself during a presentation.
"You have to tolerate uncertainty. There might be a question that stumps you, or there might be something you don’t know," Dr. Kissen says. But, not knowing the answer to one question, or tripping over a sentence during a presentation isn't the end of the world. After all, we're not perfect.
If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call the Anxiety UK on 0844 775 774.
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