Staying focused

Staying focused

Concentrate on the task at hand and your talent and knowledge will come to the forefront

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 06/05/2014

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Dear Patti,
I’ve been unemployed for two-and-a-half years and it’s been rough on my family, especially my wife. She works extra hours to make ends meet, and even though I take care of them, she misses staying home with our two very young children.    

I’m finally really close to obtaining my dream job which will involve something I love doing and that I’m highly trained for. It also pays more than my old job and is much closer to home. I’ve already completed the interview process and was told that if I pass their comprehensive written exam, the job is mine. The test takes about an hour and will only cover the basics. I know this information forward and backwards but have studied a prep course all week to feel fully prepared. 

As the exam date gets closer, though, I’m getting more and more apprehensive and nervous about the possibility of not passing. If I fail, it will be very difficult to get another chance like this. I hate the idea of letting my family down, because they’re counting on me to provide for them. If I’m calm and focused and can’t pass the test, that’s one thing, but if it’s information I know perfectly well and fail because of nerves, it would be a terrible shame. Any suggestions on how to keep my composure? 

— Willis

Dear Willis,
You’re not alone in your test-taking angst. Whether it’s an occupational comprehensive test, a school exam, an athletic competition, or even sex, anxiety can occur when someone has a strong need to perform but becomes so afraid of failure that all their knowledge, experience and confidence flies out the window. 

Concentration can also be impacted by extreme stress or following a traumatic event. Let’s say, for example, you visited a hospital emergency room and encountered a man who’d just been in an accident. Imagine asking him to study trigonometry on the spot. Just remembering his phone number and address might be challenging enough.

When your anxiety level is so high that cognitive disruption (unclear thinking) occurs, it’s important to understand the causes. Let’s start by thinking of your body as a radio with three channels. One is a channel to all your thoughts, another channel is to your body’s physical and emotional feelings, and the third is all of the senses (smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing) that connect you to the outside world. Since it’s difficult to listen to three radio stations simultaneously, you need to focus on what each separate channel is communicating.

First, let’s concentrate on your thoughts. Explore your worst fears (e.g., you don’t want to lose a chance to support your family). Face these thoughts, explore possible alternatives, and then turn that channel off. Don’t allow yourself to ruminate, especially during the test. Whenever these frightening thoughts return, dismiss them by saying, “I don’t need to scare myself.” Concentrate on your skills and knowledge and stay focused in present time.

Before you go to take the exam, sit down, relax and focus on the second channel — your physical and emotional feelings. Imagine entering the building and sitting down to take the test. Do you have physical anxiety symptoms such as knots or butterflies in your stomach, a racing heartbeat, shallow breathing or tense muscles? Are you experiencing feelings such as sadness or anger? If so, pay attention to these feelings and focus on your symptoms until they go away. Lie back, stretch out, close your eyes and breathe in and out, deeply and slowly. Count backwards from 10 to one, feeling the tension gently leave your body with each breath as you relax your feet and legs, your torso, your arms and hands and, lastly, your neck and head. When you’re completely relaxed, open your eyes and, again, imagine yourself taking the test. Repeat this relaxation exercise whenever the anxiety returns until you’ve desensitized your fears and can easily visualize yourself confidently taking the test. Even under stress, you’ll be able to recall the knowledge and skills you know you have.
Get a good night’s sleep the night before. Don’t go on an empty stomach; eat a good breakfast. Arrive early with your thoughts free of fear and worry, your body calm and relaxed. Stay focused on the third channel — giving full attention to your senses. Stay in the present, focus on the task at hand and all your talent and knowledge will come to the forefront. n 

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email Visit her Web site,


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