It is normal to have some amount of anxiety in preparation for a test. Different people have different levels of anxiety in this regard. Some people have good coping strategies for their anxiety and don’t find test anxiety to be a significant problem. In fact, an optimal amount of anxiety can actually give a revved up feeling that can enhance performance. Other people have degrees of test anxiety that can interfere with their performance. It may be hard for someone who does not experience test anxiety to understand just how incapacitating it can be.
Consider the following situation:
You’ve done all your homework. You’ve listened in class and
prepared well for the test. While taking the test, you freeze…
your mind goes blank. The things you have learned, the
material you have studied seems nowhere to be found.
Test anxiety is actually a type of performance anxiety similar to stage fright. It typically occurs when performance is important and the pressure is on. It is not the same as worrying about something (death of a loved one, or a romantic break-up) and becoming distracted. Emotional symptoms of test anxiety are fear, irritability, anger, and even depression. Physical symptoms include headache and stomach upset. Symptoms of severe test anxiety are similar to symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (increased heart rate, rapid breathing, nausea, panic attack). Sufferers of generalized anxiety disorder are more likely to experience test anxiety.
Anxiety causes a kind of “clatter” in the brain that blocks the ability to retrieve what is stored in memory. Several mental activities can be disrupted including: the ability to concentrate, the ability to understand what is read, and the ability to organize thoughts. There are several practices that are beneficial in managing test anxiety:
Neutral Tool -every time you have a negative thought that repeats itself (i.e. I’m not going to do well, this test is going to be so hard), stop the repetition by focusing on the area around your heart (a distraction). Then, breathe normally but deeply, allowing the breath to flow in and out. Spend five seconds on both the inhalation and the exhalation. While breathing, try to create an attitude of calm and peace in order to neutralize the anxiety. You may imagine taking in calm or peace when you breath in and letting out stress and anxiety when you breath out. Do this before and during the test.
Address the What-If Questions – very often test anxiety takes the form of what-if questions such as, “What if I can’t remember the material?” or “What I run out of time?”. Changing the what-if questions to a positive form can help reduce the anxiety. Examples are, “What if I remember more than I have to for this test?” or “What if I can feel more calm than I ever have?”.
Think Good Thoughts –Studies show that focusing on positive feelings (i.e. gratitude, affection, etc.) actually helps the brain work better. So, when feeling anxious, try thinking of something that makes you feel good such as a hug from a loved one, your favorite pet or a good vacation. Focus on the positive thought for 10-20 seconds trying to fully experience the feeling. This can be done as often as needed, though not during the test itself.
Holly O. Houston, Ph.D.
Anxiety and Stress Center, P.C.
Anxiety and Stress Center, P.C.