Right after waking up I realized with a start that I have a crucial exam today. Even worse, I’ve been procrastinating studying for the test, and not even going to the classes, besides. Now, Exam Day has arrived, I am totally unprepared, and I am well and truly screwed. How could I be so stupid and reckless?
The next thing I know, I’m rushing through the empty, echoing halls of the building, looking for the room where I’m supposed to take the exam. Everybody else must be in the classroom already! Unfortunately, in my rush to get here I obviously forgot to write down the room number where the exam was being given, and now I’m frantically racing through the empty hallways, trying to find the right room before the test starts. My anxiety level shoots through the roof, and I think: I am a colossal idiot to have foolishly gotten myself into this horrible predicament.
At about this point the conscious brain takes over and realizes that I’m a 60-year-old lawyer who doesn’t take classes or critical exams any more, and I wake up with a start and a racing heartbeat.
Why do I still have exam anxiety nightmares, even though I haven’t had to endure a crucial exam for more than 30 years? It’s apparently a very common dream, and no doubt it’s because those long ago days of actual winner-take-all exams with real-world consequences engraved permanent, scarring concerns deep into the dark, twisted world of my id, where they are ready to spring forth with only the flimsiest excuse. Expose me to any unusual stressor, and that night I’ll probably be kicking myself once more because I’ve blown off the class and Exam Day is here. Yesterday I took some on-line training modules that ended with short quizzes that you needed to complete to show you’ve paid attention. I got passing scores, and I could have taken the quizzes over even if I didn’t get a passing score the first time around, but perhaps even that limited, low-pressure exposure to simple testing is enough to trigger the bad dreams.
It’s sad to think that I’ll probably continue to be haunted by the specter of long-ago exams for the rest of my life, but at least when I wake up I have the pleasure of knowing that the days of all-or-nothing testing are behind me — except in my dreams.