How to Deal with Anxiety as a Student

Many students take pride in their work and extract personal value from school. But sometimes, rather than taking the result of a test or project as an indicator of how well they did on the assignment, they take it further.

As the teacher walks around handing students their graded papers, we feel elevated. It’s not a positive experience: it’s an extreme excitement characterized by discomfort and displeasure. We dread getting the assignment back not because of how it will affect our final grade, but because that number from 1-100 will determine how we feel about ourselves for the rest of the week.

Even if our general trend points up, even if we’re highly ranked in our class, it becomes so easy to let a solitary number determine the quality of the foreseeable future. Every time we think of that grade we’re not happy with, we feel the emotional sting of regret. And for some reason, many great students continue subjecting themselves negatively to the inevitability of their occasional failure.

Why did I do poorly?

For me, when I received a grade I wasn’t happy with, I would grow concerned that I had lost my ability to think clearly, focus, or study. There was a time where my obsessive thinking focused on an intense desire to be academically best at my school. So when I wasn’t happy with a grade, I would try desperately to get to the bottom of it: to point out the reason why I did poorly and what I could do to change it next time. But before I did that, I would go home lethargic and take a nap in a pool of self-hatred. Anyone who has taken them will know that an unwanted nap is, for some reason, a terrible experience that throws off the rest of the day.

It’s scary to lose faith in our ability, especially when it’s tied to something as volatile and ever-changing as academic performance. My self-worth would fly out the window every time, but I was scared to do anything about it. I thought that without the anxiety and self-loathing I experienced, my grasp on my intellectual competitors would vanish. So even though I hated it, I was even more fearful of getting rid of it, because I felt it was the only thing holding me together.

Meanwhile, I was cycling through different methods of studying, learning tips, and Internet advice. Past physical and digital archives show me the obsession I had with optimizing my performance. The cyclical ups and downs of my progress made me irritable. I know there are many students similar to how I was, and the most unfortunate thing is that we actually enjoy school, or at least once did. We value education, love building relationships with our teachers, do fairly well, and enjoy the company of friends. So it’s frightening when that is threatened because of thoughts we hate and don’t feel in control of. And if we start questioning our intelligence or ability, the problem escalates quickly. So how can you avoid these feelings while keeping your intellectual edge?

Set Your Priorities Straight

There are some things you can control and a greater number of things you can’t. When you set academic goals for yourself, make sure they are things you can fully control. You can control your effort on an assignment. You can’t control the outcome of the assignment. And by listing your priorities (physically) and ensuring you can commit to them, you are setting yourself up to succeed. As a result, you can begin to feel more relaxed and in-control of your progress. For example:

“Earn a GPA of 92 or higher in the 2019-2020 school year.”

—Although this goal is certainly attainable, by focusing on numbers, you’d be neglecting the process and putting your goals in the hands of something you can’t fully control. Try instead:

“Put forth steady effort on all English assignments and begin essays more than one day before they are due.”

—This is a much better goal because it’s entirely controllable by you. As long as you follow a goal like this, you are succeeding in your own eyes. Therefore, you can let go of discomfort when the result is less than preferable and feel elated when it’s up to par or better.

Base your goals on the actions required to achieve a preferred outcome, not the outcome itself. You can not fully control outcomes, but you can fully control your actions to achieve those outcomes. By narrowing your priorities to that within your grasp, you will likely achieve your preferred outcome anyway, but if you don’t, you will know that you did everything you could and tried your best.

Testing Anxiety

I first recognized I had test anxiety while doing the PSAT in my Sophomore year of high school. While I was doing it, anxieties and physical discomfort wrecked my focus. I sat there, bobbing my leg up and down, screaming at myself internally for not knowing answers, sitting on a question for minutes, and desperately needing to use the bathroom (I had coffee in the morning, and at the time, I usually didn’t, so the diuretic was taking its full effect). It was a miserable experience, and I sympathize greatly with anyone who tells me they have test anxiety or that they “blanked” during a test.

Again, we need to focus on what we can control. Can you control your thoughts? No. Can you control your focus? Depends. But can you control your level of preparation and attitude before going into a test? Absolutely.

Sometimes, we won’t study. And sometimes, we’ll think we’re prepared but we’re not. That will happen. While we’re testing and we recognize we’re fighting a losing battle, we hold on to the hope that we will somehow be able to ace the test anyway. We think “I can be different—I can not study and do better than everyone in my class,” while simultaneously thinking “I hate myself. Why didn’t I study?” These opposite thoughts are exhausting; we are both self-deprecating and pompous. And having either feeling during a test decreases our focus. So if you didn’t study and realize that you likely won’t do well on an assignment, take a deep breath and think of what you can control now. You will realize that all you can do is get through it with a smile and a determination to do better next time. You won’t help yourself by freaking out—you will not be the one to do well without studying, but you also don’t deserve your negative internal dialogue.

These things will happen. C’est la vie and stuff. When you expect them, you can be pleased when they don’t happen and emotionally prepared when they do.

So next time, make sure you’re prepared and try to turn fear before the test into excitement. But you won’t always be prepared, and that’s okay. You can still get through the exam with dignity and the comfort that you acted according to your goals although your grade might not be ideal.

Build Positive Relationships with Teachers

It’s difficult to explain how this works, but I have found that when I feel supported and understood by teachers, I was much less likely to feel extreme fear during critical moments in their class. This is a small tip, but it can be a huge relief to feel you can speak honestly about your performance to your teachers. Chances are, they will appreciate you admitting your mistakes because they see that you care about their class.

The class that frightened me most in high school was a Biology class. It was taught by a man who had been at my school for 40 years. He placed deep value on grades. He introduced the sophomore class to matters about college, about prestige, scholarships, and competition. There is surely some value to hearing that stuff early, but it made it difficult for me to feel close and comfortable with him.

What he had to say frightened me and the rest of my class. To follow his scary speeches with an hour of a boring Biology class and the farm-y smell of a rabbit he kept as a pet made it a low point in my day. I would think of the things he said while taking his tests and this made me struggle to answer his 120 questions in 60 minutes.

A few other students had cracked his shell and were closer with him than I was, and they were the ones that did best in his class. I don’t know if it was because they were close with him that they did well or vice versa, but it will never hurt performance to feel friendly with your instructors.

Admit to Your Mistakes Quickly and Ravenously

“A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it is committing another mistake.”

—Confucius

Isn’t that great?

Anyway, when you screw up, don’t be afraid to send a long-winded email to your teacher. Don’t be afraid to admit fault and say to them “I didn’t prepare” or “not my best work.” They will appreciate your humorous expression of care for their class and may be inclined to let you fix your mistake. If they don’t, you still got the pressure off your chest and have built a better relationship with them. Admitting your flaws publicly is a win-win. By ignoring them, they become serious secrets, but by expressing them, you will discover how normal and frequent they are for everyone.

Watch this video for valuable tips for acute testing anxiety. For me, “quick fixes” rarely work, and my expectation that they will usually just causes more stress. If you trust a greater process of recovery, you will find many of the gaps filling themselves in naturally. This video from the Princeton Review, however, focuses on objective and actionable advice, so I appreciate it.

If you have any questions about anything in this post, need help with accountability, or could offer advice to better my blog, please message me or comment. Thank you and good luck becoming a more confident student.

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