A Counselor's Guide to Test Anxiety

Test anxiety, or the experiencing of dread, anxiety, and tension by students in testing situations, is a condition that is affecting youth all over the world. Not only does this condition have an adverse effect on the academic performance of students, but can even have an effect on high school drop-out rates. What’s more, test anxiety can have major effects not only on academic performance, but these effects can extend to social and behavioral development as well. Put simply, the identification and treatment of test anxiety can be vital to the success of students both in the short term and long term.

Signs of Test Anxiety

Physical Stress Symptoms – There are two types of physical symptoms associated with test anxiety. The first are stress symptoms such as shortness of breath, light-headedness, and feeling faint. The stress symptoms of test anxiety can look a lot like an anxiety attack. The difference between a typical anxiety attack and the physical symptoms present due to test anxiety is that, without the test, the anxiety would not exist. The test is the singular stressor, whereas an anxiety attack can come about seemingly without reason or cause. Other stress symptoms include excessive sweating and headaches.

Physical Digestive Symptoms – Stress symptoms aren’t the only symptoms to keep an eye out for regarding test anxiety. Some people will not exhibit any of these symptoms, but will experience some digestive issues. These issues can include nausea, indigestion, and diarrhea.

Emotional and Behavioral Symptoms – Sometimes people with test anxiety do not show any physical symptoms whatsoever, but this does not mean that they are suffering any less. Some people only show symptoms through how they are behaving or what they are feeling. Feelings of helplessness and dread are often associated with test anxiety. In addition, many people will have trouble concentrating or sitting for the entirety of the test.

Causes of Test Anxiety

Poor Test Grades in Past – Anxiety can be a learned behavior, and in the case of test anxiety that learned behavior is a result of poor past performance on tests. Wanting to avoid failure at all costs, but being unable to avoid assessments in general, can lead to the feelings of dread associated with test anxiety. Poor test grades and the anxiety they can lead to can compound, and lead to further poor performance.

Fear of Failure – One of the root causes of test anxiety is also considered to be one of the root causes of anxiety and general: a fear of failure. Feeling as though failure is an indication of greater flaws, be they of skills or character, can lead to feelings of dread regarding assessment. There are few more direct opportunities to get feedback regarding one’s understanding of a topic or abilities to excel in a given discipline than an assessment, and feeling as though a poor grade is an indication of not only one’s ability, but one’s potential and character, can give the assessment more power than it was originally created to have. This given power can lead to test anxiety.

Being Unprepared - While general (not test related) anxiety can certainly be a chronic condition with a variety of causes, being unprepared for tests can cause test anxiety. Students who study well in advance of their test suffer at decreased rates from test anxiety. This is, of course, not the entire story. Sometimes test anxiety leads to obsessive studying for a single exam, but in general test anxiety is caused in part by a lack of test preparedness.

Managing and Overcoming Test Anxiety

Overcoming test anxiety can be a tall order, but with the following techniques you will be able to manage it.

Be Prepared – Preparedness is the name of the game when it comes to test anxiety. While test anxiety can be a catalyst for obsessive studying, it can also be paralyzing, causing students not to study at all. The feelings of helplessness can lead students to feel as if studying is of no use, which leads eventually to a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Practice Relaxing – There is a difference between being lazy and learning how to relax. It may seem odd to practice relaxing, but for people with test anxiety, relaxing may not come easy. Often there is a feeling that if you are relaxing you are simply not working hard enough, but this could not be further from the truth. Rest and relaxation is as crucial to academic success as studying. Without being able to relax, through breathing exercises and awareness of the tension you are carrying in your body, academic success is all the more difficult.