Test anxiety is an unreasonable, almost phobic, fear or panic about taking a test. Test anxiety is often detrimental to a student as it results in an inability to perform, even after preparation, which impacts grades. Students are unable to focus on test questions, even when prepared, because they are overly focused on their feelings of nervousness and worry.
Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety resulting from fear of poor performance, fear of not being able to finish (timed tests), fear of not living up to parents' expectations, or fear of being imperfect. Test anxiety is more likely to occur in people who tend to worry a lot than in those who don't usually worry. Therefore, test anxiety occurs when someone anticipates a potential stressful or negative event.
Anxiety is a normal emotion that everyone experiences at one moment or another in their life. Anxiety usually results from a stressful life event or situation. For example, it may be the rush to finish a project or assignment before a deadline, realizing that you left your wallet at home when it is time to pay the bill at a restaurant, waiting to receive the results of a medical procedure, or not hearing from your children and it is well after their curfew.
Taking a test is also a stress inducing event, especially if the outcome significantly impacts your future academic or career options. Having a little bit of anxiety before a test is helpful because it provides you with motivation to study and indicates that you care about your performance. In this sense, most people receive a functional benefit from pre-test jitters as they are able to take certain actions, i.e., prepare for the test, study, get a good night's sleep, arrive on time, that are adaptive to the situation and result in a reduction of their nervousness.
Test anxiety is not the typical pre-test jitters; rather it is problematic because students display an unreasonable amount of fear about the test and their performance on it. This fear, in a sense, paralyzes their ability to demonstrate their knowledge and perform to their abilities. Test anxiety does not provide students with the functional benefits of typical pre-test nervousness. Instead test anxiety results in avoidance behaviors and thoughts, (inability to start the test, having to leave the test due to extreme nervousness), and/or obsessive thoughts (only thinking about the potential negative outcomes of taking the test).
What Does Test Anxiety Look and Feel Like?
Test anxiety may be hard to see at first because it starts out as thoughts. These are negative thoughts about how you are going to perform on the test, which only cause your anxiety to increase. These thoughts may be so distracting that you are unable to concentrate.
As your stress increases, adrenaline, a hormone, floods your body preparing it for some type of action. However, instead of acting you become frozen. You have a feeling of queasiness, like having butterflies, in your stomach, you may feel light-headed or dizzy, feel like you have a headache, or you may feel like you need to use the restroom. Some people may start to perspire, feel their heartbeat race, or start to physically shake.
As you are experiencing these physical reactions to the stress of taking a test, you continue to focus on negative thoughts which only serve to further increase your anxiety. In some cases students are unable to enter the test room or end up leaving the room which results in a lessening of stress as they escaped the situation.
Strategies to Prevent Test Anxiety
1. Take control of your negative thoughts.
In order to gain control over your feelings you have to gain control over your thoughts. The way to do this is to write them down. Start by drawing a line done the center of a piece of paper. Label the top of the first column "Unhelpful Thoughts" and label the second column "Helpful Thoughts". In the Unhelpful Thoughts column list all the thoughts about the test that are interfering and increasing your stress. Then write helpful, positive thoughts in the Helpful Thoughts column. These can simply be, "I've studied hard, I know the material, and I'll do the best I can!" Remember these helpful thoughts.
2. Use self-talk to replace new or re-occurring unhelpful thoughts.
Anytime that you find yourself thinking the unhelpful thoughts repeat the helpful thoughts to yourself. If you are alone you can say them out loud, otherwise say them to yourself in your head. In addition, have some other positive thoughts ready to help out. For example, "I am confident." The more you say these positive thoughts the more likely you are to believe them. Once you believe in them you will believe in yourself.
3. Develop a mental picture of yourself being successful.
Mental imagery is a powerful tool. Harness its power to overcome your test anxiety. Develop a picture in your mind of you sitting down at your desk, looking at the test, answering the questions, and doing the best that you can. Bring this image to mind a few times a day the week prior to the test to reduce your stress.
4. Remember to breathe slowly and deeply.
Gaining control over your breathing allows you to gain control over your emotions. Deep, slow breathing also gives your body oxygen which you can use to help you think clearly. Once you are able to tell your emotions and your brain that you are in control you will able to use your other strategies for dealing with test anxiety.
5. Exercise right before the test.
Exercise is a good way to reduce and burn away the chemicals in your body that increase stress. It also helps to increase neurotransmitters and endorphins that give you a feeling of happiness and safety. Exercising briefly prior to a test will get your blood flowing and help increase your supply of oxygen.
6. Prepare yourself for the test.
Organize your time and study for the test. It is helpful to take a practice test in the same place that you are going to complete the actual test. Going through a trial run is less stressful because there are no stakes associated with it and the outcome of your performance doesn't matter. However, a practice run will go a long way to increasing your confidence for the real event.
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