Combatting Test Anxiety with Self-Compassion

By Robin Gluck on September 1, 2017

Last month I wrote about the role anxiety plays in preparing and sitting for your licensing exams. In particular, my goal was to assure you that anxiety is not only a normal part of the process, but can even benefit your study process. If you didn’t have an opportunity to read it, here is the link. As I discussed in the last blog, while a moderate amount of anxiety can be beneficial, too much or too little can actually be detrimental. In this month’s blog, my goal is to help you develop awareness around your anxiety and begin developing skills to temper it when it becomes too high.

The first step to increase control over your anxiety regarding this exam is to understand it better. There are two parts to achieving this goal: 1) identifying the thoughts that trigger your anxiety and 2) recognizing the physical responses your body experiences when you are anxious. First, let’s talk about thoughts that often arise with this exam. When I talk with people getting ready for the exams, a few common statements I hear include, “I’m not a good test taker,” “I am scared I won’t pass and will never get licensed,” “Everyone tells me these exams are so hard,” “I’m on a Facebook group and everyone is saying it’s impossible,” and “I will be so ashamed if I do not pass.” These thoughts may push you to work harder, but if they go unchecked, they can also become too overwhelming and undermine your efforts.


Let’s do a brief exercise now. Take a piece of paper and write down some of the thoughts that arise when you think about preparing for or taking your exam. What kinds of internal or external pressures exist for you and what thoughts do they provoke? How do you rate yourself as a test taker? What feedback have you received about the exam from friends, colleagues or through social media, and what thoughts come up for you as a result? Hold on to this list, as we will return to it later.

Now let’s shift to physical sensations you experience when thinking about the exam, studying, or taking mock exams. Anxiety will manifest itself differently for each of us. For me, when I am nervous my hands become clammy and I feel a bit shaky or lightheaded. Take a moment to think about what happens for you when the thoughts you just identified occur. Write these physical sensations down next to each of the thoughts you’ve listed. Do you feel your heart rate rise? Does your breathing become more pressured? Do you feel more jittery than usual? How intense are the sensations?

Identifying thoughts and their corresponding physical sensations could be a new practice for you. Some people are unaware of what happens to their bodies when they are anxious and may not even realize what thoughts they are having or their impact. If this is true for you, it could be helpful to keep a daily log of thoughts and physical sensations over the next week or two as you study. This will not only help you increase awareness, but also begin to gain control over them.

For those of you that were able to identify some thoughts and corresponding physical sensations, you know that these thoughts can feel very true (even when they are not) and as a consequence can become debilitating when we leave them unchecked. We are often our own worst enemies and harshest critics. But imagine if a dear friend came to you with this list of thoughts and accompanying sensations: how would your thoughts and feelings shift if they were no longer about you?

Imagine a good friend sitting in front of you, wringing their hands and expressing self-defeating thoughts to you. Imagine seeing how shallow their breath is and hearing about how much their mind is racing. What do you notice in yourself? Can you feel how much your heart fills up with softness and compassion for them? It’s sometimes hard for us to demonstrate this level of compassion for ourselves, but it’s important to nurture this skill.

Let’s do one final exercise. Look over the lists you’ve created for a final time and this time imagine that a friend is expressing these things to you. Write down how you would respond to them. For instance, if I had a friend say to me, “I will never pass this exam. I’ve never been a good test taker,” I might respond by acknowledging the exam is difficult, but that it is testing skills they’ve demonstrated competency in over time. I would encourage them that with proper studying and support, they will rise to the occasion like they have done in other situations before. I would also want to remind them of the successes they’ve had during their academic and professional careers, and of all the clients who benefitted from their knowledge and skills. It is oftentimes easier to find words of encouragement and feel compassion for others. They are just as true for you.

I encourage you to take some time and sit with each one of these thoughts and sensations. Imagine the words you would say to a friend and then imagine if they were said to you when you are thinking and feeling this way. Try to feel the softness, kindness and compassion you would show towards others and begin to internalize it for yourself. Slow down and take time to really feel connected to the words being said. Integrate deep breathing as you continue to build your self-compassion. Self-care is not just about getting exercise or pampering yourself physically. Take time to also care for your emotional well-being; not only do you deserve it, it will help you as you work to achieve your goals.

The Therapist Development Center was created by Amanda Rowan with the goal of empowering test-takers, and recognizing anxiety and stress management were critical parts of the test-taking process. Our Social Work and MFT programs can provide you with the knowledge, skills, and test-taking strategies to help you PASS WITH CONFIDENCE, and you also have the power to adjust how you think and feel as you prepare for the exam and on test day. This is just one exercise that can help you increase self-compassion and temper your anxiety. This blog will continue to provide tools to help you move in this direction. And remember, you can always reach out to your exam coach if you need additional support.



Commenter Name
February 1, 2018

Good Morning, I just want to say, Thank you, to Heidi for introducing me to this blog. I truly appreciate the words of wisdom and support given blog. I will practice this technique not only during my preparation for the exam , but in all areas of my life that cause me anxiety.

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