There is no question, the LMFT and LCSW board exams are challenging. They are also considered big hurdles that you must successfully jump over while on your path to licensure. These two facts combined make it far more likely that test anxiety will be present, and may even be higher than you’ve experienced during past exams. In this month’s anxiety management blog, we’re going to explore some techniques you can employ when anxiety unexpectedly strikes.
When Might Anxiety Strike?
Anxiety can and likely will appear throughout your studies. And because of its prevalence, this is a topic we’ve addressed in our recent blogs (link) and will return to in the months to come. However, this month’s blog is going to focus specifically on anxiety that may hit on exam day. What might test anxiety symptoms look like?
- Increased difficulty focusing
- Physical symptoms such as increased heart rate or sweaty palms
- Increased levels of negative self-talk
- Increased self-doubt
It’s important to recognize this is normal and even if these symptoms do appear on exam day, you will be okay. More importantly, there are steps you can take prior to exam day to prepare yourself to more effectively deal with these symptoms.
Developing Test Anxiety Strategies Prior to Exam Day
I would argue the most important thing to know about test anxiety is you definitely do not want to address it for the first time on exam day. When Amanda Rowan developed Therapist Development Center, her background in the neuroscience of learning made her acutely aware that how we prepare for an exam affects our levels of anxiety leading up to and during the exam. And this influenced how all of our LCSW and LMFT programs were designed.
All of our exam prep programs help you to start off and stay organized, and provide you with clear and concise road maps to exam day. And since TDC takes a holistic approach to exam prep, all of our programs include strategies to help you manage test anxiety.
Following are some strategies you can begin to employ at the onset of your studies. The more you are able to build these skills and integrate them into your studies, the more accessible they will be on the day of your exam.
- Practice Mindfulness/Meditation. Each time you sit down to study, take a few minutes to practice a relaxation technique. Develop one you like and build it into a regular practice. It could be counting your breath, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, or the use of a mantra. Each person is unique, so be sure to find something that works for you and practice it regularly.
- Increase body/mind awareness. Plan for breaks during your scheduled study times (you can even do this when you’re not studying). Take a pause and notice what is happening in your body and your mind. If your heart rate feels high or you feel a little shaky, take the time to return to the relaxation technique you already have or are developing.
- Maintain a healthy dose of self-care. Take some time to read our other blogs on this subject. This will not only help you as you prepare for your exam, but will contribute to a healthier mindset on exam day.
Test Anxiety Tips for Exam Day
Exam day arrives and you’ve established some great anxiety management skills. And yet, at the beginning of the exam or at some point during the exam, anxiety kicks in and begins to overwhelm you. Remember, this is normal. You’ve spent a lot of time and energy preparing for this exam and want to succeed. This speaks to your integrity and passion. In addition, you have the knowledge and tools to confront this anxiety and manage it for the duration of the exam.
Following are several suggestions to help you manage your test anxiety, whether it presents immediately or surprises you in the midst of the exam.
- Write reminders on your scratch paper prior to starting the exam. This can include, but is not limited to, writing your mantra in big letters, writing down the times you want to take breaks, positive self-talk, etc. There is no rush here, so take the time to write it down. Looking down and being able to read kind and encouraging words can be very helpful when anxiety arrives.
- Engage body grounding techniques. Take a little time before you start the exam and as needed throughout it to ground yourself. Place your hands on the cold and solid desk, plant your feet firmly on the ground, and feel your body’s pressure against the chair. Take a few deep breaths and focus your attention to the sensations that arise throughout your body.
- Take pauses. If you are taking a 4-hour exam, you will definitely want to take a break to refuel. But there are other times a pause can help. If a question is really challenging, it is likely to increase feelings of anxiety. Don’t let this feeling seep into the next questions. Instead, take a pause. Take your eyes off of the screen, even if it’s just for a few seconds. You can close your eyes and take several deep breaths. You may choose to stand up and stretch your arms to the sky. Use the mindfulness/meditative practice you’ve developed over your studies. Take the time to do something that allows you to reset before you move on to the next question.
- Focus on one step at a time. Rather than thinking of all of the questions on the exam, or the full amount of time you will be sitting for it, focus on the sentence you are reading, and then the next sentence. Break your exam down down into smaller, more digestible bites. Think of it like you do with a full day of clients-it’s a lot easier to focus on the client in the room with you at that very moment. You cannot be present for this client if you are pondering the next 7 you still have to see.
The more you work to build your anxiety management practice prior to exam day, the better you will be for it during the exam. If you’ve read through this blog and think, “HA! These strategies cannot help my level of anxiety!” I would still encourage you to give them a try. But, it may also be that additional support is indicated, and that brings us back to the importance of self-care. If your anxiety feels insurmountable, reach out to a professional and receive the support you need and deserve. Some techniques that have been used successfully by others during this process, and may or may not be appropriate for you, include EMDR, hypnotherapy, or talking with your doctor. However, my one word of caution is, do not try something completely new on exam day.
Of course, one of the best strategies to manage your test anxiety is to feel adequately prepared for your exam. And that is where we come in. Learn all you need to know for your LMFT or LCSW exams by signing up for one of TDC’s exam prep program to help you prepare for your exams today! Amanda Rowan has helped thousands of therapists and social workers pass their licensing exams. Are you our next success story?