Test Anxiety and Stress

As a GRE prep teacher, I find about half my suffer from test anxiety, often at debilitating levels. Test anxiety can take even the brightest test takers and stunt their effective IQ during the exam. But there’s a simple, -proven way to take that negative stress and use it to your advantage so that you actually perform better on your GRE or any other test!

Stress Is Stress?

Not necessarily. Stress comes in different varieties. The type of stress you experience when you accept your friend’s dare to tackle a challenge is different from the kind of stress you experience when that angry pitbull is charging at you with death in his eye.

Threat stress–the type with the pitbull–elicits different body responses than does challenge stress–the kind you get when someone dares you something that you feel you’re capable of (probably) doing successfully. Research suggests that, simply by changing your mindset, you can switch from the less helpful stress to the more helpful stress.

How Can I Use Stress to My Advantage?

There are several things you can do to help manage stress

  • Changing your self-talk
  • Setting smaller
  • Changing your breathing

I’ve discussed these three in much more detail in my post, Better Test Performance the Navy Seals Way.

But you can use self-talk not just to reduce stress, but to convert the threat stress to challenge stress and enhance your test performance. You heard right; you can actually improve you GRE performance–in fact, your performance in any stressful situation–by to talk to yourself differently. 

How? In a 2014 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Experimental Pscyhology, Harvard Business Professor, Alison Wood Brooks found that numerous studies point to the effectiveness of changing your self-talk in stress situations to reframe the situation. 

There are many ways this, most of them quite simple…

  1. Reframe the ‘stress’ as ‘excitement,’ by telling yourself, “I’m excited!” Really. It’s that simple. Tell yourself repeatedly, “I’m excited!” or “You can do this!” Let yourself believe it. High levels of excitement actually increase performance! Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal covered this in more detail here.
  2. Give yourself simple commands, such as, “Get excited!” or “Own it!” This is a sneaky sort of psychology. You give yourself the command to get excited, and now all those physical cues you would normally associate with threat stress–like fast breathing and rapid heart rate–start acting as confirmations that you are indeed getting excited.
  3. Associate your current state with past excited states. What is something challenging that you are really good at? Are you an excellent soccer player? Equestrienne? Pilot? Golfer? Whatever it is, let your current sweaty palms and rising heart rate remind you of a time you felt really excited about a challenge in that thing you are really good at. Notice that you are feeling the same way about your or other stressful situation. Your body is telling you you are getting ready to excel!


You really can convert harmful and debilitating test anxiety and stress into performance-enhancing challenge stress. It’s well researched and actually pretty simple.

The next time you feel that test stress coming on, tell yourself you’re excited. Do it out loud and repeatedly. Command yourself to get  excited about the upcoming GRE (or whatever it is). Note how your body responds to your command. Finally, associate your current stress state with a similar past state in which you felt challenged and empowered.

What have you found most helpful for dealing with stress? Let us know in the comments.

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

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