Test Anxiety: Why Does it Happen and What Helps

Anxiety related to test-taking and test performance is quite common. In fact, at least 40% of all students experience it at one time or another. At a mild level, test anxiety is helpful and is simply the brain’s way of making sure we recognize that something is important and a high level of concentration and effort is needed. When the anxiety reaches a more moderate to severe level, however, it can create significant stress and discomfort. A student experiencing moderate test anxiety may be impacted by physical symptoms (e.g., racing heart, nausea), cognitive symptoms (e.g., difficulty concentrating, feeling of your mind “going blank”), and emotional symptoms (e.g., fear, helplessness) all signs that the nervous system’s “fight, flight or freeze” survival response is becoming engaged. If severe, this can lead the student to experience a panic attack, an abrupt onset of intense fear and discomfort accompanied by very intense physical sensations (e.g., heart palpitations, shaking).

What can we do to support anxious test-takers?

·       Encourage the development of good study habits including specific strategies for both test preparation and test-taking. This is likely to involve some trial and error as different strategies work for different students.

·       Promote good self-care habits (e.g., consistent sleep, nutrition and exercise)

·       Identify any distortions in the student’s thinking that may be causing them to overestimate the likelihood of poor performance (e.g., I am sure I will fail) and/or catastrophize the consequences (e.g., I will have to repeat the grade, I won’t get into college).

·       Normalize test anxiety as something that is appropriate to the situation and is enabling them to perform well. Provide reassurance that a student’s level of anxiety before a test does not necessarily predict a negative outcome. Recent research suggests that a student can be highly anxious prior to test-taking and still perform well.

·       Teach and practice relaxation techniques (e.g., diaphragmatic breathing, guided imagery) to be used before, during and after test-taking

It is important to note that for some students, particularly those with underlying anxiety disorders, test anxiety can be quite debilitating. In addition to impairing the student’s ability to concentrate and efficiently retrieve learned information, it can interfere with the student’s capacity to tolerate the testing situation long enough to complete the exam. Severe test anxiety may also contribute to avoidance and reduced concentration during the test preparation phase which also impacts performance. These additional strategies are recommended for students who experience more severe and debilitating forms of test anxiety:

·       Consult with the school counselor and other members of the student’s school team to identify available supports and assess the need for testing accommodations.

·       Consult with a cognitive-behavioral therapist to assess for underlying developmental, learning or emotional difficulties that may be contributing to test anxiety and to identify and implement appropriate intervention strategies.