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It’s natural to feel anxious before taking a test. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. Anxiety is the way your body instinctually responds to stress. Plus, though it may sound surprising, anxiety—or rather a certain kind of anxiety called “good stress” or “eustress”—has benefits.
Anxiety can motivate you. When, for instance, you’re driving on a highway and feel anxiety when a car starts veering into your lane, the anxiety is your body’s natural way of signaling that you’re in danger and should perhaps speed up, slow down, change lanes, or honk the horn.
Anxiety can also be motivating. Athletes who experience some degree of anxiety before games tend to perform better than athletes who don’t. Similarly, students who experience some degree of anxiety before taking exams tend to do better than students who don’t.
But there’s a fine line between productive anxiety, or eustress, and unproductive anxiety. Anxiety that hinders someone’s ability to perform is called performance anxiety, and it’s an unproductive kind of anxiety. It’s a far cry from eustress.
Test anxiety is one kind of performance anxiety.
Students whose anxiety prevents them from doing well on tests have test anxiety, and test anxiety is something that should be taken seriously and, in some cases, treated with medicine or therapy, among other options. This includes students who take online classes for high school credits and do their tests online via a computer, as well as students who take classes in person and their tests among other students in classrooms.
Symptoms of Test Anxiety
Students with test anxiety may have trouble concentrating, thinking clearly, or remembering information.
These students may exhibit some of these symptoms right before taking or during a test:
- Racing heart
- Difficulty breathing
- Stomach pain
- Tingling in hands or feet
- Excessive sweating or sweaty palms
- Shakiness or trembling
Students with test anxiety may experience emotional symptoms as well:
- Negative or self-critical thinking
- Irrational fears
Irrational fears can be especially harmful to a student’s test performance, as well as their overall well-being.
Rational versus Irrational Fears
How can you separate rational from irrational fears? There’s no clear line between the two, but irrational fears, when looked at from a distance, are unfounded. For instance, a hard-working, smart student with test anxiety may think to themself before or during a test:
- I’m stupid
- There’s no point in trying—I’m going to fail anyway
- I’m incompetent and embarrassing
Unfounded fears may also be catastrophic. For instance:
- If I fail this test, I’ll flunk out of school and everyone will hate me
- I’ll never do well on any test I’ll ever take
Unfounded fears caused by test anxiety can even be paranoid in nature:
- The teacher is laughing at me because I’m so stupid
- All the students are looking at me because they enjoy watching me fail
Managing Test Anxiety
Clearly, test anxiety can seriously harm not only a student’s academic performance but also their mental and physical health, so it’s crucial that students with test anxiety learn how to manage it.
Medicine and therapy are two helpful options, but there are also strategies students can try outside of the medical system that may help them manage their test anxiety:
- Meditating, breathing exercises, and stretching
- Preparing well for a test and not procrastinating
- Unlearning perfectionism
- Eating healthy exercising
- Adhering to a study routine
The Bottom Line
It’s natural to feel anxiety before taking a test, but if a student’s anxiety gets in their way of performing as well as they could, they may have test anxiety.
Test anxiety, like other kinds of performance anxiety, is not something someone can simply wish away. It’s a real condition and, if left untreated, can have negative consequences.
Fortunately, there are ways to manage test anxiety, so that students can perform well on tests without being burdened by anxiety.