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Along with tooth loss and dreams about being chased, test taking nightmares are among the most persistent reported by dreamers.
While the specifics of exam nightmares vary from dreamer to dreamer, there are some general themes test dreams share. Some of the more common forms testing nightmares take are:
- Being unprepared or completely unaware of a test
- Unable to recall test answers, sudden paralysis during a test
- Showing up for a test completely naked
- Tests written in a language foreign to the dreamer
Aside from sharing common thematic content, test dreams also share a pervasive emotional tenor that lingers long after the nightmare fades. Panic, fear, embarrassment—these emotions are part of an exam dream's typical register.
We'll look at all of the above and also cover how "impostor syndrome" plays a huge part in recurrent testing nightmares.
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Anxiety dreams are occurring during times of stress. They are usually expressions of worry about real-life, waking world events.
People getting married may have wedding disaster dreams as the date approaches. Expectant parents might start having dreams that something is wrong with their baby. Those in academic settings might begin having nightmares involving exams.
Anxiety dreams do not involve complex symbolism. They simply involve different scenarios of all kinds of things going wrong! We dream we've forgotten a test is happening, find ourselves suddenly paralyzed while taking a test, show up naked for a test, or turn our papers over, only to find test is written in a foreign language.
Since all of the above listed themes also occur in dreams that aren't simple anxiety dreams, how do we tell the difference?
The main difference is that anxiety dreams occur when we're actually involved in an activity that involves what we're dreaming about. Where the test dream is concerned, anxiety dreams will occur when we're involved in some arena where testing is a facet of life. Settings that promote testing anxiety dreams are academic or career related, such as when we're up for a performance review.
The most important thing to remember about anxiety dreams is that they are mirrors of waking life worries; they are not prophecies about what will actually happen in the waking world. Dreaming that we've failed a test does not, in any way, mean that we're actually going to fail a test when we take it when we're awake!
George Costanza'a Testing Anxiety
Unprepared for an Exam
The nightmare of the unknown exam is also a manifestation of anxiety, but the anxiety is completely unrelated to taking a literal test in the waking world. In these dreams, it is anxiety itself that is being expressed.
Anxiety is, in short, fear of the future. It is a fear that something horrible, some unnameable catastrophe is lurking in the shadows, bringing with it certain disaster.
Generalized anxiety has no actual form in waking life, therefore, when it manifests in dreams, it takes the form of those situations and activities that provoke similarly generalized anxious feelings.
Dreams about showing up unprepared for a test, finding out there is an exam that one was unaware of are, or even dreams of forgetting an entire class, are perfect articulations of formless fear. They are perfect because a test or class forgotten means that there is no way to prepare—the dreamer will, most certainly, fail the test or class.
Dreams like those listed are perfect articulations of exactly what the dreamer fears most—that no matter what one does, one can never prepare for everything. No matter how careful, how cautious, how diligent or hyper-vigilant, there is always some unforeseen something that will bring about ruin.
Testing Superstitions from Around the World
Different cultures have different superstitions and rituals for passing tests. Here is a look a just a few cross-cultural test superstitions.
Eating KitKats before exams has become a popular pre-test ritual in Japan. Why? Because in Japan, "KitKat" is pronounced "kitto katto" which sounds similar to the Japanese phrase "kitto katsu" which means "surely winning"!
Red is considered a lucky color in these countries so students routinely wear red underwear as secret lucky charms for helping them make the grade.
Seaweed soup is great to eat at any time--except exam time. Because the soup is so slippery there is a superstition that eating it before exams can cause all the knowledge you've gained to "slip" right out of you.
Eating curd with sugar is considered an effective food to consume before exams because curd is thought to cool the mind which calms the kid taking the test.
Never shake hands with anyone right before an exam because you might accidentally transfer all your hard earned knowledge into the palm of the other person's hand.
Choking During an Exam
Another common testing dream is the one wherein we're prepared for a test, know the answers, but find ourselves unable to recall the answers or unable to write the answers down due to paralysis.
The symbolism in these dreams contrasts somewhat from the dream of being unprepared for a test. Being prepared, but forgetting the answers one knows or becoming paralyzed, points to some situation in waking life wherein we know what the correct response should be, but find ourselves unable to render that response.
The difference between being unprepared and being unable to respond is similar to the difference between "panicking" and "choking."
We panic when we're in situations for which we have no foundation for comparison. Panic occurs in totally unfamiliar territory. Panic is the predominant feeling in an unpreparedness dream.
Choking, however, occurs in situations for which we are completely prepared. Choking takes place is those places where we feel most comfortable, have all manner of reference, and have likely been preparing for all of our lives. Choking is, in essence, a form of self-sabotage.
Dreams about test paralysis or sudden memory lapse are dreams of choking, not panic. Self-sabotage is not as uncommon as one may think. Oftentimes when we get something we've always wanted, even worked hard to achieve, or when we're on the precipice of such an achievement, we will, oddly enough, do something to shoot ourselves in the foot.
Part of the reason for this phenomenon is, once again, anxiety. Achievement brings change, accomplishment brings change, getting what one wants brings change. Change brings fear—fear of how one will cope with something new, fear that one will lose what has finally been attained.
If dreams about test paralysis or memory lapse occur, it may be helpful to look to waking life and see if there is anything going on that might provoke unconscious self-sabotage and prevent its occurrence.
Naked for an Exam
Dreams wherein one shows up naked for a test takes the anxiety theme and ups it several notches.
However, wherein dreams about being unprepared for a test symbolize fears of unpreparedness for life in general, showing up for exams unclothed are a bit different. In the naked test dream, the overall theme is not so much that one is unprepared as one is exposed.
Dream nudity typically comes with feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability. But when it occurs in conjunction with testing, it symbolizes fear that a faceless force is judging us and we're coming up completely lacking.
These dreams can occur when we're hypercritical of ourselves or when we secretly fears that we're frauds. The feeling of being a fraud about to be exposed is symptomatic of a specific neurosis called "impostor syndrome."
We'll look at dreams about tests and how they might indicate impostor syndrome in a section below.
Mr. Bean Takes a Test
Taking a Test in a Foreign Language
Dreams about tests in a foreign language most likely symbolically mirror a waking life situation—a situation that the dreamer feels is all together incomprehensible. The situation the dream is mirroring may be one that used to make sense to the dreamer, but which, for some reason, has moved into unfamiliar territory.
For example, we may be working in a place where we felt completely comfortable, but the addition of a new supervisor with different expectations can leave us feeling like we're now in foreign territory. This feeling of unfamiliarity where we once felt comfortable can prompt dreams of taking a test in a foreign language, especially if the dream comes at a time close to a performance review.
Dreams of tests in languages foreign to the dreamer may also symbolize communication difficulties, especially with a significant other. A relationship that one may have been comfortable with may now be rife with difficulty or unforeseen problems. One may feel that one is "failing" one's partner, unable to figure out what is necessary to make things right.
If this is the case, it may be helpful to speak to one's partner and confess one's inability to communicate. It may sound obvious, but the obvious is oftentimes that which is most often overlooked.
Test Dreams and Impostor Syndrome
Another thing that test dreams may point to is a pervasive neurosis known as "impostor syndrome."
Impostor syndrome does not refer to people who actually are con artists or scammers adept at convincing others that lies are truth. Impostor syndrome refers to people who are exactly the opposite: hardworking, talented, capable individuals who suffer from the erroneous belief that they are frauds.
Impostor syndrome is a particularly vicious, insidious dual-edged neurosis. It tells us that we are liars fooling the world into thinking we are competent individuals capable of handling pretty much anything life throws our way. And worse, it also tells us that our "fraud" will be revealed to the world at any given moment.
Because impostor syndrome is a neurosis, it does not respond to logic or empiric evidence. No matter how successfully we navigate our lives, no matter how responsibly we execute the tasks entrusted us, we still feel, deep in the core of our being, that we are liars.
Impostor syndrome is not a just a feeling. It is, instead, a maladaptive behavior. It is a bizarre coping mechanism that is common among those of us who grew up in performance based households.
Performance based households are those where love is predicated on performance. They are also households where no performance, no matter how good, is ever quite good enough to "earn" the love that is our right simply by virtue of the fact that we exist.
Recurring testing nightmares can be symbolic of a core terror that we are inherently flawed, basically unlovable, and will never, no matter how hard we work or study, make the grade.
If any of this rings true for you, it is important to recognize that nothing is true about these feelings save for the fact the you are feeling them! The environment in which we grow up does affect us, that is true. But it is also true that we do not have to be held hostage by the past.
Professional counseling can be invaluable in transforming maladaptive behavior and trading less desirable coping mechanisms in for those that allow us the ability to function at a higher level with greater peace of mind.
Test nightmares are generally expressions of some form of anxiety.
Sometimes the anxiety is generalized anxiety, meaning that the anxiety is a form wherein we live with a constant foreboding feeling that something bad is on the horizon.
Other times, the anxiety is more specific, as when we suffer from impostor syndrome and feel we're going to be exposed for the frauds we believe ourselves to be, despite the irony that all the evidence in our lives points to the fact that we're actually competent, capable people.
Finally, test dreams sometimes simply reflect anxiety over tests themselves, especially when we're in a setting where taking tests is a common occurrence.
No matter which kind of anxiety a test dream is expressing, as always, it's important to remember that dreams are rarely prophecies. Most of the time dreams are simply progress reports concerning the state of our psyches. Sometimes the reports are stellar, other times, they may indicate areas where we can improve.
If the latter is the case, don't worry! We all need improvement from time to time and dreams are a marvelous way to find out what we can work on.
We should try not to be afraid to look to a professional when what we're working on is too much to handle on our own. We're never afraid to call a plumber when we can't unclog a sink on our own. We shouldn't fear calling a pro when the clogs in our lives are too sticky for us to handle ourselves.
- Managing Test Anxiety | Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS)
If test anxiety is interfering with your performance or your quality of life, try some of the suggestions in this article.
- 5 Types of Imposter Syndrome and How to Stop Them - The Muse
Imposter syndrome can be a sneaky phenomenon. Research by Dr. Valerie Young suggests there are five types and gives advice for overcoming each.
- Anxiety Disorders | Here to Help
Learn more about anxiety disorders like panic disorder and PTSD. Find symptoms of anxiety disorders, treatments, self-management tips, and where to go for help.
© 2019 Aisling Ireland
Lorna Lamon on April 07, 2019:
What an interesting article Aisling - I have always had dreams just before exams so this explains a lot. I love the superstitions from around the world, and as I have to sit regular tests I might try one of them - probably the one from Japan!! Thank you for sharing.