Dear Patti,

I’m 18 and have to take the DMV road test in order to get my driver’s license. I passed the written exam but when I took the actual driving test last month I failed. It only took 25 minutes but it seemed like forever. I thought I was fully prepared. I’ve taken a driver’s prep course of over 50 hours with 10 hours of night driving. As my family will attest, I’m a very good driver. I was just so nervous at the possibility of not getting my driver’s license that I didn’t pass, and as the appointment time for the re-test gets closer, I’m getting more and more apprehensive. I’m very independent and hate the idea of not being able to get around on my own. If I’m calm and focused and still unsuccessful, then maybe I need to practice more and take the test again, but if I fail because of my nerves I’m afraid it’s because of a destructive pattern. Do you have any suggestions on how to keep my composure?  

— Hannah

Dear Hannah,

You’re not alone in your angst about test-taking. Whether it’s a job interview, a school exam or an athletic competition, anxiety can occur when someone has a driving 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 and I visited a hospital emergency room and encountered a woman who’d just been in an accident. Imagine asking her to study trigonometry on the spot; while remembering her 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 with thinking of your body as a radio with three channels. One is a channel to all your thoughts, another channel is to your physical and emotional feelings in your body, and the third is all of your 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, it’s important to focus on what each separate channel is communicating.

First, let’s concentrate on your thoughts. Explore your worst fears; i.e., you don’t want to lose your independence. Face these thoughts, explore possible alternatives, and then turn that channel off. Don’t allow yourself to ruminate, especially during the test. Every time these frightening thoughts return, dismiss them by saying “I don’t need to scare myself.” Concentrate on how to demonstrate your driving skills and knowledge of traffic laws and stay focused in present time.

I’d recommend driving to the DMV road test site a few days before the exam. Sit in your car in the parking lot and focus on the second channel, your physical and emotional feelings. Imagine yourself getting in line to take the test. Do you have physical anxiety symptoms such as knots or butterflies in your stomach, 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 each time 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 the exam. Don’t go on an empty stomach. Eat a light but healthy meal beforehand. 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, and focus on the task at hand. How exciting for you to be taking this positive step toward independence and adulthood. Good luck 

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 an office in Pasadena. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email Visit her website,