Test anxiety

A few more weeks and the first semester will be finished. With Winter Break around the corner, preparations are made for travels and celebrations. Candles and fireplaces are burning and fuzzy feelings are felt on darkening winter days.

But the Secondary students aren’t feeling the fuzzies just yet. They are entering a tensive period of mid term exams. For some of the students, these tens feelings get more severe and they experience worry and feel anxious preparing and doing the exams.

Feeling a little nervous or tense before and during exams is not only normal, it is helpful towards a good performance. But if nervousness turns to anxiety it can influence results on exams in a serious way.

Test anxiety is a form of performance anxiety, a feeling someone might have in a situation where performance really counts or when the pressure is on to do well. The anxiety can be general for the whole situation of exams or testing, or it can be very specific, focussed around one subject or type of exam. There can be anxiety over something you’re not good at, or are good at but have to live up to a highly set bar.

Estimates stemming from scientific research show that 15-20% of students are experiencing medium to high levels of anxiety and around 20% of students are even suffering from high levels of test anxiety. Even very famous people like the singers Adele, Mariah Carey and Niall Horan, actors Johnny Depp and Scarlett Johansson, model Kate Moss and former president of the United States Abraham Lincoln (to name just a few), know what it’s like. They too suffer(ed) from anxiety.

What causes test anxiety?

Fear of the unknown – feeling that you have to perform at un unknown location and/or set-up, feel like you don’t know how the exam will be set up, how scoring will be done etc., feeling of lack of control and helplessness

Fear of inadequacy – feeling that you are unprepared and not ready for the challenge, feelings of guilt for not taking responsibility

Fear of stakes – feeling that everything (future, self-worth, love and affection of important people in your life) is riding on this exam or test

Perfectionism – feeling you have to do perfect on an exam, test or performance

Negativity bias – the weight we put on negative past experiences and transfer them onto expectations for things to come

These fears are very easily fueled not only by ourselves, but by other important people in our lives (even unknowingly) and the performance culture of society.

Symptoms of anxiety that can be experienced are divided into 4 groups;

thoughts – worry and doubt, beliefs about academic failure or low achievement, thinking your not good enough, second guessing, racing thoughts, going blank – trouble concentrating

emotions – feelings of distress and discomfort, negative emotions like fear, helplessness, anger irritability, disappointment, depression, lack of motivation, crying/laughing (uncontrollable)

physical sensations – heightened awareness of physiological arousal, incl headache, nausea, diarrhea, sweating, shortness of breath or hyperventilating, light headedness/feeling faint, cold hands, dry mouth

behavior – avoidance (of studying, attending school, doing the test or exam), restlessness, fidgeting

What triggers these symptoms?

The symptoms stem from a response in the brain. All anxiety is a reaction to anticipating something stressful. Like other anxiety reactions, test anxiety affects the body and the mind.

When you anticipate a situation that is threatening, you’re brain and body react in an evolutionary pre-set way and prepares for ‘fight or flight’. Nowadays these types of threats are not so much a lion lurking in the bushes to attack us, but are multifaceted and have added the response of ‘freeze’ to the ‘fight or flight respons’.

At the first sense of danger, our amygdala, the alarm center in our brain, starts flashing out signals to different parts in the brain that prepare us for action;

the hypothalamus starts the production of adrenaline, which ramps up our heart rate and breathing. This is similar to a situation in which we are startled. It also starts the production of cortisol.

the cortisol influences the hippocampus, which shuts down our memory and digestive tract. This is why at times of trauma memories are often absent of the actual traumatic event. Our digestive tract is shut down (which means emptied!), so our body can fully focus on the threat instead of using it’s energy on digestion. Nausea, vomiting, belly aches and diarrhea are possible results.

cortisol also influences our immune system. when levels of cortisol are high for a prolonged period, we are more susceptible for infections and diseases. Getting sick around exam time is more likely when stress levels are higher.

the brain stem increases muscle tension in order to physically react to the experienced threat.

The prefrontal cortex is the CEO of the brain and interprets all signals coming into our brain. The CEO is the one who should be telling us that we can calm down, the threat is controllable. But the prefrontal cortex needs rest to digest. And that calm state we need to control anxious feelings is not easy to obtain when we are experiencing these anxious feelings ….

What are the consequences?

When experiencing a threat like upcoming exams, the brain interferes with our concentration and memory due to the response of our panicing hippocampus. The worries and negative thoughts we have are taking over our ability to focus and memorize. To make is even worse, we get pre-occupied with all the bodily sensations that are not intended for us to think and focus, but to act. This makes it hard to learn and/or reproduce during exam.

And when the result of the exam is lower than wished or prepared for, our worries are confirmed. Self-confidence decreases, feelings and thoughts of worry and anxiety intensify and negative beliefs are fueled. Similar to other types of anxiety, a vicious cycle is created.

Test anxiety is not outgrown. Over time, test anxiety (and the experiences going with it) can even lead to reduced effort to learn, lower self-esteem and loss of motivation for school/study.

How can you support your child?

Create an place of peace. Not only for your child to study without distractions, but to be there when they need you. If your child wants to talk, that will automatically happen when the atmosphere is relaxed at home. You can do this by just being present (or at least try to be more at home during the exam period), but do your own things. Take care of moments with a cup of tea and something tasty and discuss daily things.

If discussing preparations are exams, try to stay away from leading questions like “Are you anxious about the big test? Are you worried about the science presentation?” To avoid feeding the cycle of anxiety, just ask open-ended questions: “How are you feeling about the math exam?”, “How is the preparation going?” or “Can I help you?”

When your child is expressing doubt, fear or anxiety, you want to listen and be empathetic, but stay away from downplaying their emotions or reinforce the negative thoughts. Help them understand what they’re anxious about, try to replace negative or irrational thoughts with realistic and positive ones. And definitely remind your child that, no matter what happens with any test, he or she is a wonderful, beautiful, worthwhile individual who is loved and cherished.

Ask your child if would like to practice or rehearse with you. Rehearsing the material in a verbal way after studying it from written material is an additional way in which memory is strengthened.

Have fun! Smiling is a sign of happiness. But researchers have found that laughter and smiling ease anxiety and tension, lower stress hormones and muscle tension and it brings people together. How? Goof around, tell a joke, watch a funny segment on TV or play a game are just a few ideas and make for a great study break.

When your child is experiencing test anxiety, stimulate them to talk to their teacher of mentor, as they can teach them study techniques and relaxation practices that are helpful in managing test anxiety. 

If you would like to receive some tips for your anxious teen? Or would you like additional support for your anxious child? Please send me an email.

I hope this information will support you and your child/children in the upcoming period.

Warm regards,

Nicole Buitenhuis

psychologist | counselor | personal coach


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