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Managing Test-Taking Anxiety

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For optometry applicants, taking the OAT is inherently stressful.  It just is. Even so, for some OAT test takers, there is excessive and unnecessary self-inflicted anxiety that can be avoided.

This article will explain what you can do before and during the OAT to help deal with the anxiety inherent in test taking.

I reference two books in this article.  Here from each source are main points I use…

“The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle: 

The thesis of this book is a profoundly simple one: the only moment in time that should be experienced is the one that happens right now.  Don’t think about the past; it is gone.  If you revisit the past, you will be filled with regrets and recrimination.  Don’t visit the Power of Nowfuture. If you speculate about the future, you will be filled with anxiety about what might happen.

Because it is a common mistake to waste emotional energy by dwelling on the nonexistent past/future, Eckhart Tolle makes the key point that the only moment we truly have is the one we are in right now. It is therefore only the Now that is worthy of your thoughts, energy, and personal investment.

Practicing the Power of NowThere is another teaching from this book that was revolutionary for me: the thoughts that pop into your brain are not necessarily coming from a well-meaning place inside you, and as such, are destructive. Tolle names the part of you that is “observing” this constant destructive, negative commentary “The Watcher.” Key to dealing with test taking anxiety is first, to be on guard and thus able to recognize negative thinking, and then to quickly call it out. It’s hard to do. More about how one goes about recognizing errant negative thoughts in this, my next book recommendation…

“The Untethered Soul” by Michael Singer:

The main thesis of this book dovetails with what is taught in “The Power of Now,” namely, that the ongoing negative narrative we all have speaking to us through our internal thought process should not be automatically accepted as our own thoughts.  Instead, this constant stream of negative thoughts should be questioned, be examined.  Singer calls this negative voice we hear in our heads, the “Bad Roommate.”  This ongoing diatribe is the voice you hear inside your own consciousness that criticizes you for anything from a bad hair day to more toxic feelings like worthlessness and isolationUntethered Soul. Singer makes the case that this voice is not you, and that you should ignore this voice. It is a reflexive, conditioned voice that comes from your false self—the unhealthy self that formed as a result of the critical, harsh process of just surviving childhood by growing up.

To summarize, both books make the case that everyone has negative thoughts that need to be ignored. Doing this is an active, vigilant process, which is done by mindfully staying in the present moment to first recognize and then push away negative thinking generated by the false self. This advice is key to performing well while taking an objective test.

Now let’s get down to the specifics of how to apply this advice to OAT test-taking day.

Applying Negative Thought Management to Test Taking Anxiety:

Before taking the test, sit quietly and as they pop into your mind, first be aware of and then practice actively ignoring negative thoughts. When you do sit quietly and watch your thoughts, it is surprising how many negative thoughts appear—one after another. Some mindfulness practitioners recommend using a meditation practice to engage this experience of ignoring destructive thoughts, and I do too.  However, to just get started, I recommend practicing ignoring your thoughts anytime a negative one crosses your mind. Get your Watcher going to consciously recognize that the false self is trying to do a number on you.  Actively stay in the Now, the present moment, because the panic of negative thinking will tempt you to leave the moment and instead go into either the past or future, aiding the false self in collecting its evidence to make its case.

Opting out of watching your thoughts may lead to the compulsive tendency to leave the Now, which done over and over, turns into mindless, anxiety-producing, obsessive thinking.

I’ll use a personal example to illustrate….

It’s a beautiful early spring morning. Sunny, crisp, and filled with promise. I am walking my dog.  I am fully present in the moment. Because I’ve practiced the technique, rather

Jettie Homecoming July 2015 (2)

Me with Jettie

than making any judgments about my surroundings, I simply experience my feelings: the beauty, the colors, the smells, the bounty of what surrounds me.  I am front and center in the Now!

All of a sudden, the “Bad Roommate” breaks in with a typical negative thought…

“You know how you forget things, right? You probably forgot to pay your property taxes by last week’s deadline. Now you are going to be on the hook for the penalty fees. You are so stupid! Can’t you do anything right?!?  It’s going to cost you!”

I quickly recognize that my mind has left the Now. I am faced with a choice. If I entertain this ugly, out-of-the-blue thought coming from my false self, I will vacate the moment and relapse back into the anxiety-filled past. I will rummage around and come up with even more evidence of other mistakes I have made.  I could also leave the moment and go into the future and start to worry about all the other deadlines and resultant penalties that I probably will also surely miss, or….

I can listen to The Watcher who creates therapeutic distance, a space where I can objectify and thus call out this panicky, negative thinking as false.  It helps me recognize that I am having anxious, unnecessary thoughts that do not come from my healthy true self, but rather, come from my pathological, unhealthy false self.  My Watcher creates objectivity where I may then recognize the thoughts as negative.  I remember that I don’t have to unconditionally accept these thoughts as mine.  My Watcher correctly identifies this intrusion as an attack, destructive, and false.

I decide to actively deal with this intrusion, and staying in the moment, I take in and exhale a couple of slow deep breaths. I reassure myself that when I get home, I will check on this payment deadline. I resolve not to ruin the Now, the limited enjoyable time I am spending with my dog.  I will not forfeit the richness of the moment by indulging this sudden errant negative thinking.

Put simply, I instead choose to ignore my thoughts.  I refuse to leave the Now. I ignore my false self who  launched this hostile attempted takeover. My mind slowly reestablishes the status quo, and I remind myself how easily anxiety takes hold if I don’t actively watch my thoughts.

Ignoring your negative thoughts is the only way to avoid a hostile takeover by the false self.

Staying in the Now, the only moment that is truly available to you, is what you MUST do.

It takes practice to ignore negative thinking. Instead of obsessing over negative thoughts like a dog with a bone, you must push them away. Slow, measured breathing is key. Taking in a deep breath, holding it for a split second, and then slowing let it out physically puts the “brakes” on your autonomic nervous system and calms you down.  I go into more depth about breathing in my blog article, “OAT Test Taking Anxiety?  Try Mindfulness.”

On The Morning of the Test:

On the morning the test, spend at least 20 minutes in quiet. Consciously acknowledge your Watcher, and thus begin by identifying the ever-present negative thoughts as they bubble up: “I should have studied more,” or “I feel so stressed out,” or “I am horrible at objective test-taking.”  Realize those thoughts come from the Bad Roommate who is trying to do a number on you.  Practice acknowledging these thoughts but not engaging, but rather calling them out.  These thoughts are merely the false self trying to takeover.  Stay with the peace, hang in there with the moment, and then calmly watch these negative thoughts pass right on by, unable to warrant any emotional  energy from you.


…begin by identifying the ever-present negative thoughts as they bubble up…

Think of yourself on the bank of a river.  Like boats passing by on the river’s current, watch your negative thoughts pass on by.  No judgment, no analysis. Don’t be tempted to swim out and jump on the boat, to rummage around on deck or in the boat’s hold. Instead, calmly breathe and laugh at the futilite negative thinking of the false self.  Engage your true self—the good roommate and friend—the one who knows you, who will affirm you, and who will keep you in the moment, in the bounty of the Now.

I’ve written a blog article about objective test-taking which you should read if you feel you second guess yourself when taking objective tests. 

During the Actual Taking of the OAT:

First of all, don’t forget to regularly and intentionally breathe.  Slow, measured breaths will both help your body recall the calming behavior practiced beforehand, and will help to put the brakes on the reflexive “fight or flight” response typical of any stressful situation.

As you read each test question, refuse to leave the moment.  Resist making judgments like “I don’t know anything about this topic,” or “this question is not written well.” Refuse also to make judgments about any conditions around you, say for example the person sitting next to you who keeps clearing his throat, the room temperature not being ideal, schedulingetc.

Instead, stay in the Now. Get into your body and feel grounded by it. Relax your shoulders by gently dropping them back and down.  Put a gentle smile on your lips and be happy that you prepared to take the test—a test for which you have prepared.  Adopt a “Matrix-like” focus, and be happy that you have the privilege to take the OAT,  which will demonstrate just how much time you have invested in working toward your goal of becoming an optometrist.

With each question, breathe, gently read the question, and without judgment, look at the answer options.  You may reframe each test question by asking, “What is it that the test question is trying to discover that I know?” Reframing the question this way makes is it a positive question—phrased in a way the true self might ask it.  It is not the negative framing from the false self, “What a stupid question,” or “Oh no, I have no idea what the answer is!”

Ever present and ready to create chaos, the false self never asks questions that positively advance the process.

Go ahead and laugh a little at the false self’s failed attempt to take you out of the Now.

Trust the Watcher to inform you that the Bad Roommate has no business following you into the testing center.

Smile and tell your true self to inform your mind and body that you’ve got this.

Enjoy taking the test…And yes, you can actually enjoy taking a test, full of the joy of knowing that you can do this!

Everyone deals with anxiety.  Everyone.  You are not alone.  Like those who struggle with anxiety, these books have helped me to feel in charge of how I deal with anxious thoughts.

I hope you check out these two books.  For even more excellent wisdom from Eckhart Tolle, check out the sequel to The Power of Now, A New Earth.

I’d love your feedback.

Here is a brochure composed by Matthew MacKinnon, MD.  It will help you get started in mindfulness practice:Brochure BackBrochure_Front

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