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Test Anxiety
Test Anxiety

What Is Test Anxiety?

Basically, it’s the inability of truly capable people to pass a test when they have studied appropriately and know the material well.  Often students have enough anxiety in preparing their class discussions or presentations.  It’s the feeling of panic and memory loss accompanied by physical symptoms of nervousness during a test or preparing an assignment.  Sometimes, individuals can be overcome by dread and anxiety when instructors just mention an upcoming test.

What Causes It?

Usually it’s the fear that a test or the way an assignment is prepared will have the power to keep you from realizing your goals.  In college, a test can make you fear being denied entrance into a career or major that you strongly desire to enter.  Our society depends heavily on testing to determine academic talent and ability, and college is one of the institutions where testing can be used to accept or deny your entrance into a particular program of study.

The emotion of fear and being nervous about testing are very common among college students.  Bright students often suffer test anxiety because they are extra conscientious and self-critical.  They fear that failing even one test will make them unacceptable.  Re-entry students often have high expectations, but may lack confidence.  They fear they have inadequate preparation and they are not familiar with current testing procedures.  Most of the time these fears are exaggerated, and learning to relax as they study will help students do well.

How Do You Know If You Have Test Anxiety?

Do you know your subject well until the minute you begin the test, and then experience complete amnesia, which lasts until you leave the testing room?  Then, once outside, are you able to recall absolutely every detail of the information you needed during the test?

When testing, do you experience unpleasant physical and emotional symptoms such as headache, nausea, rapid pulse, shortness of breath or sweaty palms, shakiness and butterflies in your stomach?  Do you become depressed, frightened, panicky and tend to tell yourself negative messages, such as how stupid you are, how you can never do anything right, or how you are a total failure?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may have suffered some of the very common, but very real symptoms of test or performance anxiety.

What Happens to You to Cause These Symptoms?

Test Anxiety impacts you in two principal ways, (1) through your body and (2) your thoughts and feelings.  The primary feelings of fear cause your brain to send signals of impending danger to your body and it responds in an age-old way—we prepare to fight or run away.  This preparation causes all the uncomfortable sensations and emotions mentioned above.  They overpower your ability to access the knowledge you have stored in your brain.  Too bad you can’t run from a test!  Your main task in overcoming test anxiety is to convince your mind that you are not in danger.

How Can You Overcome This?  Who Can Help You?

There are many good techniques to help you return to a more relaxed and calm state.  College counselors can be of help by teaching you these techniques and coaching you in their use.

Sometimes, you get too worried and upset for too long about grades and your ability to achieve in college, and you become depressed.  It is very important to see a counselor at this time. Without support you may begin feeling worthless and hopeless and end up making some serious mistakes, such as dropping out of school before you have a fair chance to reach your academic goals.  Counselors, though not magic, can be very helpful at this point.

What Are Some Techniques You Can Use to Help Yourself and Others?

With your thoughts and feelings:

  • Yell, “STOP!” in your mind, and substitute positive messages for negative self-talk. “I am intelligent and I do well in school.” “I am relaxed and know my subject well.”
  • It is important to say confident things to yourself in the present tense even if you don’t believe them this instant.
  • Consider the worst that can happen; it’s almost never as bad as you had imagined.
  • In your mind force a picture of you achieving your goal(s).

With your body:

  • Breathe deeply and slowly concentrate on each breath.  Count to 4 as you inhale and exhale.
  • Counting helps you focus your mind.
  • Slowly search your body for areas of tension and when you find tense muscles, ask them to relax.
  • Put aerobic exercises—running, walking, dancing and swimming—into your schedule.
  • Find areas of pain and focus on them.  Describe to yourself the dimensions, color and temperature of the pain.  Then focus on another area and repeat this process until you have lessened the pains.
  • Daydream that you are in your favorite place enjoying a relaxing time.

Other useful ideas:

  • Avoid caffeine because it hypes you up to the point of being fidgety and anxious.
  • Eat a high-carbohydrate meal the night before the test (pasta, perhaps).
  • Rest and relaxation are more helpful than cramming.
  • Avoid nervous classmates if possible.  Nervousness and panic tend to be contagious.
  • Get a tutor if you need one; this is not a sign of academic weakness.
  • Be assertive and learn to ask questions of your instructors.
  • Assertiveness builds confidence and self-esteem, which lead to your success.
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