You studied all night–no, you studied all week–going over and over each geometric formula and drilling the characteristics of each shape into your brain. As soon as you wake up, though, you’re flooded with fear and doubt–feelings that follow you into the classroom and take up all your energy throughout the test.
If you have test anxiety, you know exactly how it feels for a chemistry test to take up an entire week’s worth of brain power. No fun.
Some anxiety before tests is actually good, because it can ignite your motivation. But when anxiety gets debilitating, where all you can think about is your inability to nail your Spanish conjugations, it’s probably time to slow down and take a look at what’s going on.
When you factor in general student stress, it seems that we should be giving test anxiety more attention. A 2019 study noted that student stress levels have been on the rise for decades, and that current college student stress rates are at an all time high. Plus, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness throughout the US, affecting around 18% of the population annually.
Severe test anxiety can carry over into other aspects of your life–social life, athletics, family, sleep, physical health. Luckily, you can learn how to combat anxiety’s effects and take back your life.
Why do only some people get test anxiety?
Test anxiety typically stems from one’s beliefs and thoughts, and not from hard facts–after all, people often describe anxiety as being part of a cyclical type of thought process, where your brain leads you to follow one thought with other thoughts that may be irrational.
Some of the common causes of test anxiety include:
- Fear that you won’t live up to other people’s expectations and that you’ll lose their respect if you don’t
- Measuring your worth with test scores
- Feeling helpless and as if you don’t have control over academic performance
- Lack of preparation
Test anxiety symptoms
Test anxiety can cause emotional, physical, and cognitive symptoms, all of which may hinder your everyday activities and mindset. Emotional symptoms may include feeling hopeless, low self-esteem, depression, and self-doubt. Examples of physical symptoms are sweating, shaking, rapid heartbeat, nausea, and headaches. Finally, cognitive symptoms include feeling fidgety/restless, forgetfulness, procrastination, and negative thinking.
How to reduce test anxiety
There are several simple and doable ways to reduce and maybe even eliminate test anxiety. The catch here, though, is that you must exercise the strategies regularly.
Change your perspective
Since your anxiety-fueled thoughts largely have to do with your mind developing a certain mindset, altering this perspective is a pivotal step in reducing your anxiety. Regularly remind yourself that a math test is just a math test, not an earth-shattering event.
Learn relaxation techniques
Relaxation techniques can mean a number of things: deep breathing exercises, positive mantras, certain power-positions, etc. Or, for some people, a rigorous exercise routine and the natural dopamine release is key for relaxation. Find what works for you, and then implement it when you need to find your calm.
Get better sleep
Keep in mind that your sleep quality and quantity directly impact academic performance, as well as your mindset going into a test. The three factors –sleep, mindset, and academic performance–are all related.
A 2021 study demonstrated just this–that poor sleep exacerbates anxiety, and the two go hand in hand. Getting low-quality sleep increases test anxiety, which weakens test performance.
Arrive (a little) early
Sometimes little moments of stress can cause what was initially moderate anxiety to surge to the point of panic–like when you can’t find a seat before your test. Arriving early can eliminate this—although, you don’t want to arrive too early, because you then may have too much time to get yourself worked up beforehand.
Usually it’s not humanly possible to be prepared for each and every test question coming your way. Remind yourself that neither you nor anyone else in the class knows everything. Going in with this attitude makes it easier to stay calm when you’re stumped.
Communicate with your teacher
Most teachers are happy to discuss an upcoming exam with you; in fact, I’ve heard from professors that they are flabbergasted when students come to them after the test, saying that they didn’t know x and y would be on the test.
Communicating with your teacher will allow you to feel more prepared and comfortable going into the test. Don’t be afraid to continue asking questions as they pop up!
Some people try to optimize their study time by skipping meals, while others grab the quick and easy “energy” bar–which is usually chock full of sugar–before running out the door. Neither of these options are ideal, and it’s crucial to fuel your body and brain, which will improve your focus and energy levels.
A 2017 review on the relationship between diet and academic achievement found that students who regularly consume high quality breakfasts tend to do better in school. “High quality” means a high volume of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats (fish, avocado, nuts), and vitamins.
Remember to hydrate, too! Bringing water with you can be helpful for staving off bouts of anxiety during a test. Try to stay clear of sugary drinks –to avoid the sugar crash–and excessive caffeine (which can exacerbate anxiety).
Has Covid-19 affected anxiety rates?
With the ongoing global pandemic still spreading around the world, a common question arising is, “how has the pandemic affected__?” And you might think that for anxiety rates, it’s all bad news–but that’s not entirely the case!
We’re actually far more resilient than we like to think, which helps explain why the surge in anxiety during the onset of the pandemic was only temporary.
A study from August 2021 showed that although the onset of the pandemic gave way to surging anxiety rates, the rates declined over 10 weeks during the first COVID-19 wave. As humans, we react, but then we adjust pretty darn quickly.
The problem with expectations
We often let expectations affect us more than we should. In a psychology class, I learned about expectations and how we expect to be more affected by events than we truly are in reality–this stands true for both positive and negative events.
Have you ever had a complete breakdown after losing something of sentimental value? At the moment, you probably thought you’d never live it down; but a few days later, it was likely just an afterthought.
We tend to build up expectations around certain events, which may simply be a coping mechanism; that is, to get ready for the unknown and feel more prepared, we craft expectations. However, rather than actually helping us, this coping strategy may just be causing unnecessary anxiety.
In reality, we are much more capable of bouncing back from these “devastating” events–breakups, fights, a failed test–than we realize. And quicker than we anticipate, too!
Regarding test anxiety, recognizing the sheer power of human resilience is crucial to changing your thought processes and, in turn, changing your test scores.
How can parents help children with test anxiety?
Whether your child is struggling with trigonometric functions, cellular structures in biology, algebraic expressions, or AP US History dates, it can be difficult and upsetting to watch them study vigorously for weeks, only to choke on test day.
As a parent, the key to helping your child with test anxiety is to not make them feel or not feel anything–instead, be their mentor and friend. Encourage them with positive mantras and words; remind them that one test, or several tests, don’t measure their intelligence or, for that matter, their worth. Remind them of all the great things they do so well, and encourage them to make time for themselves that doesn’t revolve around studying.
Recognizing test anxiety for what it is–a combination of physical and emotional reactions that can lead to irrational thinking–is your first step. Once you’ve done that, you can develop strategies and hacks that will help you succeed and ultimately translate your knowledge onto the test.
Author: Lydia Schapiro
My Private Professor is an innovative tutoring platform that inspires & empowers today’s students to reach their greatest potential & lead tomorrow’s world.