Test anxiety: What is it and how can I manage it?

It is common to experience some stress or anxiety before an exam. In fact, this is a desired reaction.  It has been proven that there is an optimal anxiety level that will help us perform better, while both extreme high and low arousal levels will be counterproductive. So, if you are feeling a bit nervous before that big exam, most likely it’s nothing to worry about.

However, when the distress is so excessive that it negatively affects your performance, then you might be experiencing something known as test anxiety. If you think this is your case, here are some things you need to know.

For students with text anxiety, the poor performance shown in exams is not a result of lack of studying, low class attendance, or the implementation of inefficient study techniques (at least not exclusively). Instead, test anxiety is an emotional, physical, behavioural and cognitive reaction that arises in situations of performance evaluation, negatively impairing the results, even of those who did prepare well for the evaluation.

This means that, even though students can have the required skills and knowledge to do well in the exams, their results can still be affected due to the excessive fear that is being experienced. Finally, although test anxiety is more common in academic contexts, is not exclusive to them and it also affects employees, sports players, musicians, etc.

So, how can you identify if you have test anxiety?

Here is a list of the most common symptoms of test anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America:

Physical symptoms: headache, nausea, excessive sweating, diarrhoea, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and fainting in the most extreme cases.

Cognitive symptoms: Self comparison to others, blanking out, difficulty to concentrate in the task and remembering the studied material are the most common symptoms. Also, given that test anxiety can be caused by fear of failure  or a poor test history, it is common to have negative thoughts and ideas, especially about what the outcome will be (“I always do bad in exams”, “I am not good at this”, “There is no way I can approve”, “what if I do everything wrong”, etc.).

Test anxiety usually works as a vicious circle in which a bad performance leads to future anxiety under similar conditions, and this in turn will lead to another bad performance that works as evidence of these negative thoughts (“I knew I was not capable”, “I have never been good at this”, “I will always be a bad student”, etc.), reinforcing them.

Emotional symptoms: Anger, fear, guilt, helplessness or disappointment. Long term, test anxiety can also lead to low self-esteem and the development of depressive symptoms.

Behavioural symptoms: Avoidance behaviours are common and procrastinating is one of them. As part of the vicious circle, students who have failed at previous exams can avoid to study as a way to not having to deal with failure again, the lack of preparation will lead to another poor performance, reinforcing the anxiety response in this kind of situations.

Test anxiety can vary from one person to other, between subjects and situations, and symptoms can also be different in type and intensity. This means, that a student who experiences nausea and struggles to concentrate during the maths exam, can be fully proficient during the history test. In the same way, some students will only experience a little sweating and trouble remembering the material, while others may even have panic attacks (in the most extreme cases).

If you feel identified with some of these symptoms, here is what you can do to manage anxiety

Be prepared: This is an obvious advice for all students, but especially for those who have test anxiety. It is important that you feel comfortable with the material, so try to study a couple of weeks before the exam instead of cramming. Taking practice tests at home or with your friends can also help as a way to simulate similar exam conditions.

Being prepared for an exam also involves getting adequate sleep and eating. It will be hard to concentrate with an empty stomach or if you only slept 1 hour the night before.

Change your thoughts: It is easier said than done, but is not impossible and it will help you put things in perspective. Whenever you are experiencing negative thoughts try to replace them with positive ones. These thoughts are usually irrational and inaccurate, so one way to overcome them is by finding contradicting evidence.

For example, if your first thought is “I always do terrible in exams”, then try to think about that time in which you did have a good performance, even if it was long ago or on a different topic. The fact that you had prepared well for an exam also works as an effective way to challenge negative thoughts. You can try with something like “I feel prepared for this test, so I have reasons to perform well this time”.

Don’t let negative thoughts define you. With time, you will have more and more evidence available, these negative thoughts will stop being a problem and the test anxiety will decrease.

Breath and relax: Taking a deep, slow breath can help you slow down your heartbeat. Do it with your eyes closed, a couple of times until you feel your body is starting to relax. Also, try to implement some positive self- talk while you do it.

Good test-taking skills: Believe it or not, the way you respond to an exam can affect your levels of anxiety too. Before you start, take a couple of seconds until you feel relaxed, then you can start reading the instructions very carefully. Try to answer the questions you know first and let the more difficult ones for later, this will help you gain confidence. If you need to elaborate an essay, try to make a draft first or a list of the elements you will need to include, nothing worse than wasting time in responding to then realise that you have been doing it wrong all along.

During the test, you will need to stay focused. Get there at least 10 min earlier, look for a sit that is away from distractions and go to the toilet before the exam if needed. Don’t pay attention to what others are doing or how long they are taking. Focus on your own test.

Seek help: Test anxiety is more common than what you think, so don’t hesitate to ask your teachers and/or school counsellor for additional tips and support. If you need a bit of extra help outside school, then looking for a tutor can be a good choice.

Additional reading:

Choose your own path

7-steps to revising for essay-based exams

Learning From Failure

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