There is a four-letter word, often heard in school.

This word can elicit fear, even panic for some students.

That word? TEST.

Most people feel at least a little nervous before an exam. A low level of anxiety can actually be helpful, as it can provide motivation and energy during the test. The problem is when the anxiety becomes so intense that it interferes with concentration or performance. When this happens, the student may zone out or freeze up on the day of the test and have trouble answering questions he or she actually knows. For some individuals, tests can even bring about physical symptoms.

What is Test Anxiety?

Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety. In performance anxiety, one feels pressure to do well. Examples of performance anxiety include waiting to go onstage in a play, going to a job interview or making a class presentation. Test anxiety, like other performance anxiety can induce:

  • “butterflies”
  • shakiness
  • sweating
  • rapid heart beat
  • nausea
  • headaches

What Causes Test Anxiety?

Like other forms of anxiety, test anxiety is an effect of anticipating a stressful outcome. When one is under great stress, the body releases the hormone adrenaline (an adaptive mechanism which prepares us for danger. This is known as the fight of flight response). The release of adrenaline causes many of the physical symptoms described above. Focusing on negative outcomes can also contribute to test anxiety.

One can become flooded with thoughts like:

  • What if I mess up?
  • What if the test is too hard?
  • What if I forget what I studied?
  • What if people notice how nervous I am?

There are essentially four main sources of test anxiety:

➢ How will others view me?
➢ How will the test outcome affect my own self-image?
➢ How will the test affect my future?
➢ Am I prepared for the test?

Tips to Help Students Cope With Test Anxiety

1. Be Prepared

The more confident your child is going into an exam, the less severe the test anxiety is likely to be. Encourage your child to familiarize himself or herself with the test format (what kinds of questions, how much time is allotted, etc). Organize the notes from the class. Make flashcards and create mnemonics to help with memorizing key concepts and terms. Set a schedule to help determine how much time is needed to study. Cramming the night before a test can intensify anxiety and is often ineffective. Getting a good night’s sleep and a hearty meal are important aspects of test preparation!

2. Think Positively

Be aware of negative thinking both before and during the test. Challenge the negative thoughts with positive statements. For example, if your child is thinking “There is no way I will do well on this test,” he or she could counter with “I studied hard. I know the information. I am going to try my best and will do as well as I can.” Positive thinking can go a long way.

3. Take Some Pressure Off

I often tell children with whom I work that it is physically impossible for them to “do better than their best.” What I mean by this is that students often feel like they have to achieve the impossible. It is as if they have to move a mountain or run a 2 minute mile. This can feel overwhelming and can cause children to freeze or even give up. Children who experience test anxiety need realistic expectations, while being encouraged to put in their best effort. Without minimizing the importance of the test to your child, you can also provide comfort in the fact that the test likely not make or break the rest of their lives. Focusing on the process (ie the effort) rather than the outcome can help put things in perspective for you and your child.

4. Practice Relaxation Exercises

Develop relaxation strategies to help your child feel calmer before and during the test. Breathing slowly and deeply through the nostrils and exhaling through the mouth helps to slow heart rate and normalize breathing. I recommend having your child practice this regularly when they are in a relaxed state, so they will have it ready as a tool come test time. Tensing and relaxing the muscles from the top of the body down is another way to ease tension. Some students like to squeeze a stress ball or other small object. Remind your child of the strategies prior to the exam. Some students find it helpful to write about their feelings prior to an exam. Actually, several studies have shown that writing for 8 minutes before a test can put students who worry on par with those who do not (Ramirez, G. & Beilock, S.L. (2011). Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom. Science, 331 (6014), 211-213).

5. Strategies During the Test . . .

  • If the material seems unfamiliar or you struggle at the start, find a question you can handle and then start there to build confidence.
  • Take breaks to recharge.
  • Take a few deep breaths.
  • Take a drink of water.
  • Close your eyes for a moment and envision a calming scene.
  • Try to think positively: Remind yourself that you prepared and are doing your best.
  • Think of a reward you will give yourself after the test: a treat, a movie or something else to look forward to when you are done.

Like any other skill, learning to manage test anxiety takes practice and patience. It is important for you the parent, to address the problem as early as possible, because it is likely to get worse over time without intervention. Rather than avoiding the unpleasant thoughts and feelings associated with test-taking, your child will benefit from working with you to develop the tools and support systems that will help them in the long term.

Ari Fox, LCSW-R is a child, adolescent and young adult psychotherapist in New York City. His practice, Cope With School NYC, helps individuals with a wide range of issues and specializes in school functioning