Test-taking blocks and blues

Dear Alice,

What can you tell me about test-taking and mental block issues?

Dear Reader, 

Feeling anxious around tests is common, so it’s no wonder that it affects the academic performance of millions of students worldwide every year. One explanation for this is the presence of a ‘mental block’. This term unofficially means when a person experiences a psychological wall in their mind that stops them from moving forward, potentially impacting their ability to complete tasks. Mental blocks are also associated with test anxiety, feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and negative physiological reactions that occur when a person’s abilities are being tested. Fortunately, some steps can be taken to address both a mental block and test anxiety. So, if you’re feeling stuck between a block and a hard place, read on for more information and test-taking tips! 

Having a mental block has been described as experiencing a figurative wall that makes it difficult to move past a certain point and can deplete the motivation to complete a task. Mental blocks are thought to be the brain’s way of signaling that it needs a break. Of course, that isn’t always a realistic option, particularly when taking a test. That said, there are ways to prevent and address mental blocks including: 

  • Practicing meditation to increase mindfulness and give the brain a chance to rest and reset itself 
  • Taking a walk to change your environment 
  • Dividing a project into smaller, more doable parts to increase confidence and reduce frustration 
  • Listening to music, which can spur creativity 

When it comes to testing anxiety, two main components typically lead to distress: physical and emotional or cognitive triggers. The physical components of testing anxiety often involve physical bodily reactions. In these moments, people may experience an increased state of arousal with sweating, palpitations, trembling, or nausea, shortness of breath and heart attack like symptoms. The emotional component of test anxiety may involve cognitive and motivational aspects. Test-takers might experience thoughts regarding the consequences of potential failure and have tendencies to act on their worries, for example, by avoiding an exam. 

Experiencing mental blocks during an exam can manifest itself into testing anxiety. There are several ways in which mental blocks and testing anxiety may present themselves. Although they can look different depending on the person, they all have the potential to reduce your ability to complete an exam. This happens because functions in the brain are diverted to address the anxiety, which in turn impedes focus and concentration in preparation for and during an exam. The good news is, there are some methods you may be able to try to overcome mental blocks and testing anxiety. These include: 

  • Creating a study plan. Prior to hitting the books, you might consider mapping out how you plan to study. This can include the time, location, and order in which you’d like to approach the material. Doing so may help to increase your confidence in the information you’ll be tested on. Your study plan may also include scheduling in time to attend any review sessions or meetings with a class instructor or teaching assistant before the exam. Meeting with these people might give you an opportunity to discuss confusing concepts or gain further clarification on a topic. 
  • Breaking the exam down into smaller parts. It may be helpful to carefully read test directions and plan how you’ll use the time you’re allotted by estimating how much time is needed to finish each section. Mentally breaking up the exam into smaller pieces may help you feel a sense of accomplishment when you complete a section. This may also give you the boost of confidence you need in order to push forward and complete the exam. 
  • Affirmations and positive self-talk. Affirmations are a verbal tool used by individuals to help change negative thoughts or behaviors. They can help to reprogram your mind to focus on who you are and what you want to achieve. In the short term you might speak kindly to yourself while taking an exam to help ease your mind. Over time, these words may even be a helpful tool to empower you and give you more confidence in aspects of your life beyond test taking. 

If after taking steps to reduce your anxieties, persistent testing anxiety continues, it may be helpful to consult with a medical professional to find alternative solutions to addressing your persistent testing anxiety. Alternatively, meeting with a mental health professional to discuss if there are other things that may also be contributing to these anxieties and what you can do to work through them. 

Here's to wishing you success on your future tests! 

Last updated Oct 20, 2023
Originally published Nov 12, 2010