Understanding Test Anxiety
Everyone has had "butterflies" at test time, but test anxiety is so much more than that. Despite being fully prepared, students who suffer this psychological condition often experience such emotional and physical stress when sitting down for a test that their mind goes totally blank and they may have to literally run away to escape the overwhelming sensations.
“Most people when they are about to be tested know there is a chance you can pass or you can fail, so it's normal to feel some level of emotional activation,” says Debra Kissen, clinical director of the Light on Anxiety Treatment Center in Chicago. That's good because it gathers your resources to work hard to prepare.
"It's when the anxiety becomes more extreme that it goes beyond helpful, flooding the person with anxiety and impacting their performance and becoming so uncomfortable they'd rather avoid the situation than tolerate the feelings of anxiety that come along with it."
How Common Is Test Anxiety?
Although figures vary, it’s estimated that about 16 percent of college and high school students have high test anxiety and 18 percent have moderately high test anxiety, according to psychologist and author Richard Driscoll of the American Test Anxieties Association.
Anxiety has surpassed depression as the most common mental health diagnosis among college students, according to a 2017 nationwide study of more than 160,000 students by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State.
Additionally, the 2017 National College Health Assessment by the American College Health Association found that about 1 in 5 college students has been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety in the last year.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1 percent of the population, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality and life events.
What Causes Test Anxiety?
A constellation of factors, individually or as a cluster, can cause test anxiety, according to the ADAA. They include lack of preparation, fear of failure, a dearth of self-confidence, perfectionism, a history of poor test-taking, generalized anxiety disorder and genetics.
"Test anxiety can stem from worry about performance," says Carol Kaufman-Scarborough, a professor at Rutgers School of Business-Camden. "This can result from a fear of a particular subject, a fear of failing, a fear of a larger impact such as not graduating and simply a fear of testing formats."
A fierce fear of failure can launch a test anxiety sufferer into a fretting frenzy of what ifs – I struggle to answer the questions, flunk the test, can't proceed to the next grade, don't graduate, can't get into grad school, disappoint my parents, am subject to disapproval from instructors and ridicule from friends, can't get a job, end up homeless.
While it’s not clear exactly what kind of person is prone to test anxiety, Kissen says both "nature and nurture" play a role. Those who have anxiety in their family or already have some other kind of anxiety issue are more likely to suffer from test anxiety.
Some people are just "hard-wired to be more sensitive to the feelings of anxiety," she says. Such people often ruminate and catastrophize about "normal" anxiety.
"Certainly, perfection is strongly associated with anxiety in general," Kissen adds, "a lack of tolerance for uncertainty in that you want to know for sure that things are going to be OK. It starts becoming more of an official disorder when one finds the sensations of normal anxiety that we all experience as intolerable or feels that the risk of failure is too intolerable."
Test Anxiety Symptoms
Symptoms of test anxiety can be emotional, physical and cognitive, and could begin weeks or even months in advance of the test. A study cited by Anxiety.org suggests that test anxiety isn’t limited to the period right before an exam, but, in fact, can begin on the first day of the class.
But, typically, the worst symptoms occur during the exam.
"Your heart beats faster, you feel like it's hard to get a good breath, your head feels kind of disconnected, it's hard to think clearly, you might feel hot and sweaty, your hands cold or tingly, you might feel weird or out of it, you might have gastrointestinal distress," Kissen says. "All sensations similar to having a panic attack."
"The worst period of test taking is when you are sitting in the classroom and the teacher is passing out the test," Driscoll agrees. "You're thinking, 'So how am I going to mess this up?'"
And there is likely no relief post-test, as the sufferer begins to dread the next time, worrying about how that one's going to go or frantically trying to concoct ways to skip it.
"A lot of the behaviors they try to do to manage their test anxiety actually feeds the beast," Kissen says.
Symptoms can include:
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Dry mouth
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heartbeat
- Excessive sweating
- Tense muscles
- Feelings of dread
- Racing thoughts
- Blanking out
- Feeling lightheaded or faint
- Difficulty concentrating
- Negative self-talk
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Low self-esteem
- Panic attack
- Strong desire to escape
- Substance abuse
10 Tips to Overcome Test Anxiety
There are many simple things a student can do to fend off test anxiety. What works for one student might not work for another. Check out the suggestions and strategies below. Some are no-brainers; others might be surprising. They run the gamut from very specific to test anxiety to those aimed at improving general health and well-being. Try one, some or all to find out what works for you. And don't rule out seeking professional help.
Expert Q&A: Tackling Test Anxiety
Clinical Director, Light on Anxiety Treatment Center
Meet the Expert
Clinical Director, Light on Anxiety Treatment Center
Dr. Debra Kissen is the clinical director of the Light on Anxiety Treatment Center in Chicago, specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety and related disorders. She also serves on the public education committee of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Meet the Expert
Professor, Rutgers School of Business-Camden
Carol Kaufman-Scarborough is a professor of marketing and director of the Business Leader Development Program at the Rutgers School of Business-Camden in Camden, New Jersey. Her research includes vulnerable consumers and inclusion issues and time perception and use.
Meet the Expert
Psychologist and Author
Dr. Richard Driscoll is a psychologist, author and researcher in North Chicago. He conducted his dissertation on test anxiety and has continued to research anxiety protocols in the decades since then. He created a test anxiety scale and a confidence training program that emphasizes a sense of interest and challenge, in addition to relaxation, to help reduce test anxiety.
Q. Should students share that they suffer from test anxiety with instructors?
Kissen: Sometimes students with test anxiety are so anxious that they don't show up for class, and then they don't show up for class for a week, and then it becomes a vicious cycle. Having accommodations with student services and being partners with the school, can be helpful in extreme cases. It can set you up for success.
Kaufman-Scarborough: Yes, many educators have tips that can help manage or reduce anxiety.
Driscoll: I think so, because it could help the student feel less isolated.
Q. What about seeking professional help?
Kaufman-Scarborough: A student should seek help (in instances) when they do well on assignments and participation but tend to do very poorly on tests. This is an indication that their test-taking abilities and methods are not truly reflecting what they have learned. They are doing themselves a disservice by not getting help. Students should not feel like they are the only ones with anxiety about tests; it's quite common. There are ways to manage and to alleviate stress that can be very effective. Even creating study groups and support groups can make a big difference in confidence and ability remember.
Driscoll: People who are anxious about being anxious often don't want to talk about it, so there are a lot of anxious students out there who aren't getting treatment. They believe they are stupid or having an underlying failure or flaw that makes them anxious, so they don't want anyone to know about it. They're ashamed and they feel that's just how it is, that it's not something to seek help for.
Kissen: All the tips to alleviate test anxiety are good, smart and common sense. They will definitely help many, such as students struggling with ADHD or procrastinators or less conscientious students in general. But the people who struggle most with test anxiety are often the ones already doing everything right. They're an over-prepared population. For them, getting professional help may be the answer. It's best to nip it in the bud rather than waiting and waiting to deal with it. Cognitive behavioral therapy is helpful for test anxiety, and it doesn't have to be a long-term thing. The goal is to see the anxiety as a false alarm and uncomfortable but not dangerous. Medication could be an option.
Q. Can suffering from test anxiety have long-term effects?
Driscoll: Yes, definitely. People who have achievement anxiety are less likely to go into the higher fields of achievement, such as being a captain of industry or a major scientist. They're scared, they feel they're not worthy, that they can't do it, that they'll embarrass themselves. It's a really important point. If test anxiety continues, many of them will be underachievers.
Kissen: The quicker you deal with it the better. Or it can become years of ‘Oh, I don't want to take that test so I'm going to take a different major, now I'm not happy and I feel unsatisfied, and I feel like a loser because I don't have a career I believe in and now I'm depressed and it's impacting my relationships,’ and so on. The longer it goes on the more it starts impacting other things. It's when you start changing your life to not have those feelings or experiences that you start taking your life off track.
Q. Is test anxiety more prevalent today than ever before?
Driscoll: I think so, possibly because there is more emphasis on testing today. I also think there is more loneliness and isolation today than ever before. Many of us have fewer close friends. If you are with all your buddies, you're probably not going to be anxious because you know no matter how the test turns out, you're one of the family. In the sense that no matter how you do on the test, there is a place for you to fall. That's part of the dread – if you don't do well on the test, that there isn't a place for you in the world. So isolated people who don't test well have a harder time.
Additional Support for Test Anxiety
Browse through this list of resources related to test anxiety and anxiety in general, as well as ways students can help keep their minds and bodies in tip-top shape for exam time and everyday life. And don't forget that pretty much every institution of higher learning, from community colleges to colleges to universities, have on-campus counseling centers. Check them out.
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