Master test anxiety with a mental trick: certain thoughts are not your friends

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

In today’s episode, we’re going to recap many topics we’ve discussed in other episodes, such as time management, emotional responses, and various traps people fall into. A lot of it comes down to, as you’ve said, underlying emotional coping mechanisms that we have when taking a test. This often boils down to a basic feeling of anxiousness and test anxiety. People don’t like to be under pressure when taking a test. So, what are some mindfulness strategies? What are the basic things you can do to address the root of test anxiety?

Orion: Yeah, that’s a big one. Up to 20% of students’ scores are based on performative factors. This means that it has less to do with what they actually know and more to do with how they’re showing up on the day of the exam. 20%. That’s a huge proportion of the variance. There are three main performative factors on the GRE: test anxiety, sustained mindfulness, which means being consistently in the present moment and is related to mitigating carelessness, and concentration endurance, which is about maintaining focus for four and a half straight hours. These three things can detrimentally impact students’ scores if not addressed proactively.

Davis: So today, we’ll talk about test anxiety, specifically how to master it. First of all, I’ve got some bad news, which is that you’re probably going to have some degree of test anxiety. It’s not realistic to anticipate that we can eliminate this entirely because people care. You’re not just going to go in and not care at all about how you do.

Orion: Well, that’s a good point. Maybe the anxiety is a sign that this is important to you. Which makes sense. You’ve probably spent two to four months preparing for this. You’ve spent a lot of time, energy, and money taking the test and preparing for it. You want to get into grad school, and your future is riding on it.

Davis: Exactly.

Orion: It’s a high-stakes testing environment. So it makes sense that you would care about it. People are involved.

Davis: Yeah. So what we’re talking about is how to remain present to the process while remaining more or less outcome independent.

Orion: That’s hard to do. Because it’s like, “Alright, I’m not outcome independent. I need to get a 165. Or else, none of this matters.” I understand that. That’s the goal. And I work with students to score at that level all the time, but thinking “I need this score, or everything is pointless” is just putting a lot of unnecessary pressure on a student. I don’t think that pressure squeezes out better performance.

Davis: So okay, what are the thought patterns that a person can self-reflect on and identify as anxiety? These are factors that aren’t actually going to improve my performance. I need to mitigate them somehow.

Orion: Yeah. So, we’re not going to be able to get rid of anxiety entirely. But we do want to lower it to, let’s say, manageable levels, right?

Davis: So how do we do that?

Orion: My other hat is that I’m a clinical psychologist. And one of the things I often tell my clients is that behind every feeling is a thought. Sometimes that thought is very quick, and we miss it. Sometimes that thought is more or less unconscious. But behind every feeling is a thought. We know this because thoughts move like lightning, whereas emotions, though they can come on very fast, are still significantly slower than mental impulses. Okay? Now, you’re free to think whatever you want, Davis. That’s your right. Within the privacy of your own mind, you can think whatever you want. However, you are not free to feel however you want as a consequence of what you choose to think. In the context of the GRE, or just in general, if you’re thinking thoughts like “I can’t do this,” “I’m running out of time,” or “I’m going to fail,” then you feel anxious, nervous, and so on. That’s my point. You’re not free to feel confident if you are allowing yourself to think and believe those thoughts. You can think those thoughts if you want to; I wouldn’t recommend it. But you’re not free to feel confident because the feeling follows the thought, exactly tied to that feeling. If you allow certain thoughts.

Davis: That’s right.

Orion: So certain thoughts are not your friends. These thoughts, which you know, you probably have your own idiosyncratic variations, listener, but they generally fall under “I’m running out of time,” “I can’t do this,” “I’m failing,” “everything has been pointless,” “I’m not going to get into grad school.” They start to catastrophize, potentially, like projecting into the future a negative outcome much further down the road, which obviously demotivates effective behavior in the present moment because it’s all lost anyway. What’s the point? What’s the point of continuing? I’ve had students just get up and walk out of the test because they weren’t doing well. They were convinced they weren’t doing well, even though they didn’t have that information yet. Maybe they got a couple of questions that they didn’t know the answers to. But that started as a negative thought spiral.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And then they got to the point where it was like, “It’s pointless. I’ve already blown it. So there’s no point in me continuing,” and they just get up and walk out of the testing center. I can understand it from within their emotional, subjective experience. Not super effective behavior, but, you know, I can understand why someone might feel that. So, just baseline, is it possible?

Davis: So, you blow five minutes on, like, the second question? Is it possible to still come out with, like, 165 or higher on what it is? I remember when I took the test myself 11 years ago to get into grad school. I was about 10 or 15 minutes into my second quantitative section, and the screen just went black in the middle of the test day. Like, do you get a redo? You have to call an administrator over?

Orion: Well, you know, I fiddled with the mouse, keyboard, and monitor. It’s like, I didn’t understand what happened. And, you know, I hurriedly got up to try to get the proctor’s attention, but he was on the phone and couldn’t help me for a few minutes. Then he eventually came back over and said, “Oh, yeah, this happens all the time. You must’ve just nudged this cable with your foot without realizing it,” and he put the monitor cable back into the desktop. Suddenly, the screen came back on. But I lost six or seven minutes in the middle of my section. And I was, you know, I could feel the fury building inside of me because I felt like I was doing very well at that administration.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: But then I was like, “You know what? There’s still time on the clock. I haven’t lost this game yet. So now, we just have to do everything like it’s at 1.5x speed.”

Davis: Right, right.

Orion: And so it’s like, time for me to put my game face on. Michael Jordan with the flu, and then I got a perfect score. So, it is possible, but it took recovery. It depends on what you do with that thought pattern once it’s had to do with my being able to wrest control of my thoughts in that moment because I was certainly being pulled into anger and panic. But I had to, like, block those thoughts energetically and replace them with thoughts that could still motivate and support effective behavior. “Nope, there’s still time on the clock. This is just a greater challenge, which means it’s just going to be a greater glory when I’m victorious at the end of the day.”

Davis: So, I mean, does that mean that how to master your anxiety? Is that just a force of will? Just, you’ve got to block the negative thoughts?

Orion: And, well, that’s part of it.

Davis: So what is the strategy?

Orion: The “wax on, wax off” strategy that I work with my patients and my students who come to me for testing anxiety is block and replace. It’s just a bread-and-butter cognitive-behavioral therapy technique, which is two parts, like it says. First, you’ve got to block those thoughts. You actually have to actively resist them. You see it, you recognize what it is, and then you say, “No.” You say, “No, that’s not true. No, I don’t want to think that.” And you don’t want to think that because you know where that thought leads you; that thought will predictably lead you to anxiety and panic. And that’s not what you want to feel in that moment. You want to maintain guardianship of your emotional state. And you can’t do that if you allow any thought to come into your mind and proliferate.

Davis: And, to be fair, I believe that your students are not actively evoking these panic-inducing thoughts in their mind, but it’s natural to the circumstance that you’re taking on.

Orion: Yeah, they show up uninvited.

Davis: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.

Orion: Yeah, the negative thoughts show up uninvited. They don’t knock; they barge in. But if someone were to, like, if you were to come home one day, Davis, and there was a strange man in your living room that was not doing cool things, would you say, “Hey, honey, it looks like we have a new roommate. Would you like a cup of tea?” You’d be like, “What are you doing in my house, man?”

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And you might not have been looking for a fight, but you have a fight on your hands, and you defend your house and home. Right. So you weren’t looking to think these anxiety-provoking thoughts. But there they are. That’s what they do. They show up uninvited, those thoughts. So it’s like, you have to say, “What are you doing in here? You don’t belong here. Get out.” Right? But you can’t just say no. So you also want to replace it with a thought that is the least pathological alternative that still fits the facts of the case. So, if you have this thought, like “I’m running out of time, I can’t do that,” you don’t want to block and replace that with, “Oh, I have all the time in the world, and I can do anything,” right? Because that’s just as unrealistic as the negative; we can be unrealistically positive too, right? So we want to replace it with something that still fits the facts of the case but doesn’t provoke a strong emotional bond. “There’s still time on the clock. Let’s see what I can do.”

Davis: Exactly. “That was unfortunate. I lost five or six minutes, but there’s still time on the clock. I can do this. I’ll just have to move a little bit faster. I can adapt and roll with it. And I can see that I can still make this work.” That’s not blowing sunshine.

Orion: Well, so the question there is if someone says, like, “I can do this,” as opposed to “Let’s see what I can do,” do you see a distinction there? Like, between one being that kind of pathological positive, I think “I can do this” is firmer and stronger. I would probably use that in that moment. I think maybe as a chain, I can start with, “Let’s see what I can do. No, I can do this. I just need to adapt this a little bit. And I can still emerge victorious.” So, this block and replace thing, you might have to do 100 times a day. But once you get better at, like, domesticating certain negative thoughts, you don’t have to do it as often. And the idea here is to block and replace them as early in the process as possible, so that they don’t trigger the concomitant emotional reaction, right? So that the feeling doesn’t come in.

Davis: Exactly. So if you can throw that thought out and replace it in the first few seconds, then maybe you can maintain that emotional equilibrium, which is going to help you to just objectively move through the test, according to your true capacity because the affirmative thought will also carry with it its own emotional weight and momentum, which will keep you going forward.

Orion: That’s also true. I often tell students, like, in the absence of complete information, why not assume you’ve done everything right? I mean, you’ll find out soon enough if that’s true or not. If it’s not true, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway, right? So why not assume that that random guess was correct, to master the anxiety and get rid of some sure emotional baggage around it?

Davis: Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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