Test Anxiety – How Can We Help?
“What? I don’t know this one! I didn’t study it. The very first question and I don’t know the answer! And it’s happening again… my heart’s racing… I’m sweating so much I can’t hold my pencil…can’t catch my breath. I’m going to fail, I’ll never graduate, I’ll never get into college. My parents are going to be ashamed of me. I just need to focus… I can’t focus. Okay, I’ll just guess and go on to the next question. No! I don’t remember this, either! I know I studied it. Why can’t I remember? I’m no good. I’m a failure. What’s the point? I’m just going to stop trying and I’ll fail. I’ll just guess at all the other questions, too. Probably won’t know them, anyway. I’ll never amount to anything. I wish I could at least catch my breath. I just want to get out of here.”
If that narrative or something similar has ever played out in your head, you’re in the company of 38% of U.S. students who also struggle with test anxiety. That means more than three out of ten students face similar symptoms before, during, and/or after taking a test. From the debilitating physiological symptoms – rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, out-of-control breathing, stiffening jaw, etc. – to the nagging psychological symptoms, such as thought-consuming and self-disparaging, negative self-talk – the impact of not addressing test anxiety can be quite damaging to a child or an adolescent. Many students struggle with finding and applying the best techniques to prevent or counter the symptoms of anxiety, so this article is meant to provide insights on how to be the best test-taker possible, especially if you’ve ever struggled with testing before.
Before we move on to the tips, you should know that the physiological symptoms you feel during a testing or performing situation can actually be beneficial – they are your body’s way of telling you to focus and ensuring you give your best performance. For example, rapid breathing is your body’s way of getting more oxygen to your blood so that your senses are heightened and you can react more quickly to a challenge.  If you’re able to recognize the physiological sensations and then use your self-talk to make a positive statement about them, you may not get stuck in the thought tornado of labeling what your body is doing as damaging. “My heart rate’s increasing. That’s great because now my blood’s circulating faster so I can respond faster. I’ll take some calming, deep breaths so I can give my body the oxygen it needs and my heartbeat can settle down.”
Similarly, there has been research that resulted in the concept known as “facilitating anxiety” that actually helps you get motivated to perform. Facilitating anxiety is meant to help you use your thoughts to predict potential outcomes accurately so you make the best choice, because some of the worried thoughts you may have are in fact true statements. For example, the thought “I’ll fail the class if I don’t take the exam, since it’s worth half my grade” is true because, yes, you will actually fail the class if you don’t show up to take the final exam, but the thought “I will never amount to anything if I don’t get an A on this exam” is untrue because one A on an exam does not predict overall outcomes for the rest of your life. Learning how to distinguish between worried thoughts that facilitate motivation and self-disparaging thoughts that damage your mental wellbeing is an important skill to have during a test.
Now let’s add some other skills you can use before, during, and after taking a test.
Fighting test anxiety – what can students do?
Music therapy. Yes, you can actually help yourself through listening to your favorite music! Whether it’s the newest pop releases or heavy metal, the music you prefer listening to in your free time works miracles to calm you down before a big test. If concentration allows, you can even listen to it as you’re studying, especially if the music is instrumental, so lyrics won’t distract you. If you notice that your heartbeat hasn’t lowered after listening to your favorite music, don’t worry – music tends to raise the heartbeat while calming your thoughts (the worry dimension of your anxiety). 
Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). You can start to become familiar with progressive muscle relaxation through this video. PMR allows you to work primarily on the physiological symptoms, but not only that. Self-defeating thoughts can be caused, in part, by physiological symptoms, because the body and mind are connected; calming the body will, in turn, calm your mind, and allow you to think more clearly about the situation at hand. These exercises relax your muscles, deepen your breathing, and calm your heartbeat. You’ll learn to systematically tense and then relax your muscles while breathing deeply and getting to a “happy place”. 
Work on your mistakes. Making mistakes is the only way for us to actually learn something and become better at what we do. So if one of your dominant anxieties is “I’ll fail again”, ask your teacher to let you see your previous test. Explain you’d like to look at what you got wrong so you can work on it. Once you see which part of the test is the issue, you can sit down and work carefully on learning those things – alone, or with a classmate who can help you. You can also ask your parents if it’s something you think they’d be good at explaining. 
Another thing you can try is to create a test-like situation as you’re studying. One of the scariest things about tests is that they’re full of things that are unknown to you and that you’re not used to. The simple act of entering the classroom on a test day can be enough to send your heartbeat into overdrive. To make this a little bit easier for you, why don’t you create a test-like situation at home while you’re studying? Make your desk look like a school desk by getting rid of your phone and other distractions you won’t find in a classroom. You can even schedule an alarm to ring at the end of the “class”, both to allow yourself to rest a bit and to recreate the school atmosphere as best you can.
Fighting test anxiety – what can parents do?
Offer them incentives. One of the best things you can do to ease your children’s test anxiety is to offer them some sort of reward if they do well on a test. Their thoughts are telling them that they can only expect a bad outcome after the test, so having something good to look forward to might make the whole experience less stressful for them. This reward works best if it’s something that means a lot to them – it can be as simple as praise, or it can be a material reward, depending on what you believe works best for them. 
You can also take the time to create a Plan B with them, in case the test doesn’t go as well as they’d like. This will show them that it’s not the end of the world if everything doesn’t go perfectly!
Quiz them. Students themselves can create an atmosphere that resembles that of the classroom, but you can help by playing the teacher. By quizzing them, you’re accomplishing two things: you’re helping them learn what they need for the test and you’re also making them more resistant to the test situation itself. You can combine these two by offering them a small reward if they do the practice test well – but be careful: if you can do it without becoming adversarial, then it’s a good thing to try.
These exercises and tips are something you can do, and should make a student feel better and more at ease! But if you feel as though you need more guidance on this matter, please contact us to set up a consultation with one of our coaches.
- Davis, W. B. & Thaut, M. H. (1989). The Influence of Preferred Relaxing Music on Measures of State Anxiety, Relaxation, and Physiological Responses. Journal of Music Therapy, XXVI (4), pp. 168-187.
- Conrad, A. & Roth, W. T. (2007). Muscle Relaxation Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: It Works But How? Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 21, pp. 243-264
- Hembree, R. (1988). Correlates, Causes, Effects, and Treatment of Test Anxiety. Review of Educational Research Spring 1988, Vol. 58, 1, pp. 47-77
- Cassady, J. C. & Johnson, R. E. (2002). Cognitive Test Anxiety and Academic Performance. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 27, pp. 270-295.
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