We’ve all heard about students who get so anxious about exams that they can’t function normally—some get cold sweats, some get dizzy and faint, some become nauseous. Extreme test anxiety, while rare, can be a tremendous problem.
But did you know that virtually all students experience some degree of anxiety or stress at test time—and that any level of anxiety can negatively affect your performance on an exam? Addressing anxiety is a major success strategy for all students.
Have you ever felt like you studied well enough for a test, only to take the exam and discover you couldn’t remember much? See if this scenario sounds familiar:
It’s a multiple choice test. Marina knows she needs to do well on this if she has any hope of getting the grade she wants for this class. She has gotten through the first few questions okay, but now she’s run into a little trouble. Answers looks familiar, but she can’t quite remember anything in enough detail to be sure.
She skips a couple of questions and aims for one that looks doable. She narrows the answer down to two possibilities, but can’t settle on one. She tries re-reading the prompt, but it seems to get harder to even focus.
The clock is ticking. Some students get up to turn in their tests and leave. Marina tries to bear down, but it seems the more she tries, the harder it becomes. She feels upset because when she reviewed this last night, she felt like she knew it. Now she can’t seem to remember anything.
Marina gets through the test. It’s not terrible—but she knows she could have done a lot better. By evening, in fact, she’s remembered answers to several questions she knows she got wrong!
Marina realizes that she is having difficulty recalling information. She tries harder to think, but it seems like the harder she tries, the harder it becomes to remember. The more anxious she gets, the worse she does. As her test anxiety gradually increases, her brain’s ability to do the work she needs goes down.
Most test anxiety is mild enough not to cause severe physical symptoms. Marina doesn’t break out in a cold sweat. Her heart doesn’t start to race. She fidgets in her seat more than usual, and she feels a thick, dull headache coming on just a little bit, but that’s all. Yet, Marina’s anxiety levels are raised enough over the course of the test to interfere with her brain’s ability to think and remember. Her anxiety is not profound, but it definitely costs her points on the test.
Remember, fight or flight is a response to anxiety, not a cause of it. Most text anxiety comes from two often related sources: insufficient study and a pressure to do well. For example, Marina felt pressure to do well when the test began. As she took the test, she felt as though a lot of what she was reading looked familiar—yet she couldn’t be sure. This frustrating feeling raised her anxiety level even further—making recall of what she studied much more difficult than before.
To reduce the chance that anxiety will throw you off course, stick to this simple three-part plan:
If you take ADHD medication or any medication that helps with focus and relaxation, be sure you follow your doctor’s instructions to the letter. As for caffeine—you be the judge. A little may give your brain a helpful spark, but too much will raise your anxiety unnecessarily.
For most anxious test-takers, putting this three-part plan into action helps—a lot. Some students, however, find that their anxiety is grounded more deeply—in brain chemistry, maybe, or in profound concerns about their families, themselves or unknown factors. This anxiety can be more difficult to relieve, and it can also be very severe.
If you continue to experience anxiety, or it is too severe for you to handle, it’s very important for you to seek help. Your college’s counseling center is a great place to start. Centers are staffed with psychologists and other specialists, many of whom do a great deal of work with anxiety and stress.
And remember: while this three-step plan can provide immediate results, those results will definitely improve over time. Stick with it, and soon you’ll find your anxiety no longer wanting to accompany you to class.
Humans have this amazing natural ability called the ‘fight or flight” mechanism, a defense system that’s hard-wired into our genetic code. If you’ve ever tried to avoid being hit by a car, threatened or attacked by someone or in some way suddenly frightened or put into danger, you’ve experienced fight or flight.
Your brain triggers a flood of adrenaline and testosterone throughout your system. Suddenly, you are faster and stronger and able to react physically even before you can stop and think about what you’re doing. If driving, you slam on the brakes. If someone sneaks up and scares you, your whole body jumps. Someone pulls a gun in a room, and everybody dives instantly to the floor. The fight or flight response mechanism is an effective defense against sudden danger.
For students, however, fight or flight poses a couple of problems. First, in addition to triggering muscle systems, it slows down the parts of our brain that think and analyze. This is great if you’re being attacked by a bear, not so great if you’re taking a test and need to think carefully about everything.
Second, the brain reacts to all anxiety-causing stimuli the same way. Whether you’re anxious about an oncoming train, or the difficulty in choosing between answer b and answer c, your anxiety—even just a little anxiety—is going to make thinking more difficult.