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Conquering Test Anxiety

It's the night before a big test at school. You've been studying really hard, you didn't miss a single class - you're as prepared as you possibly can be. But you still have butterflies in your stomach and you can't help thinking that you're going to do horribly. It doesn't make sense, but it's happening: it's test anxiety.

For many people, the thought of writing a test is the stuff of nightmares. For those no longer in school, being back there and having to write a test is actually a common nightmare! But it doesn't have to be that way. There are ways to help people overcome test anxiety.

"Life is full of evaluations; tests just happen to be part of that," says David Ross, professor emeritus at a college in Illinois. "Some situations we can avoid, [but] it's hard to avoid tests if you are in school. It is hard to separate how you feel about yourself from your performance on tests."

The first step in understanding test anxiety is recognizing that, well, it's difficult to understand. "Anxiety is complex," says Sandra Bolt, director of student assessment services at a Seattle college.

Test anxiety, like all anxiety, is the body reacting to anticipating stress. Bodies release adrenaline when they're stressed out; adrenaline gets the body ready for danger. Adrenaline causes the physical signs of stress: your heart beats faster than normal, you sweat, and you breathe fast.

It's important to realize that while it's very common to get a bit nervous before a test, there are different levels of anxiety. Certain types of people are more likely to get test anxiety - people who want everything they do to be perfect, or people who tend to worry a lot to begin with, are more likely to get test anxiety.

It's hard for people who want what they do to be perfect to accept not acing a test, so the pressure is on to begin with for them. And, of course, people who worry a lot in the first place are going to worry going into a test situation as well.

Bolt says that there are people who can help counsel those with test anxiety. Indeed, she says that if you're experiencing what seems like a lot more anxiety than others regarding tests, it would be a good idea to talk to someone about it.

"A student with test anxiety may want to consult a professional in the field," she says.

The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) says on their website that it's rare to find a student who doesn't have a high level of anxiety about big tests. They add that test anxiety can cause many other problems, such as irritability, anger, headaches and depression.

The trouble is, as the ASCA points out, being stressed about anything can reduce your ability to remember and recall information. So worrying too much about doing well on the test could very well get in the way of your doing well on the test!

One of the tips the ASCA gives on their website is what they call "practicing the neutral tool". Doing this means that when you start to think negative thoughts, you catch yourself and practice going neutral with your thought process. This can stop those negative thoughts before they get worse.

Another one of the ASCA's tips is addressing negative "what-if" questions, such as "What if I fail?" Instead, they recommend making up a what-if question that is positive: "What if I feel more relaxed than I thought I would? What if I remember much more than I expected?" They also suggest things like getting enough sleep; eating well (a nice big, balanced breakfast before the exam is important); and thinking good thoughts in general.

In U.S. high schools, competitive standardized college entrance exam testing like SATs and ACTs place a great deal of pressure on students.

The ACT's website says that only 24 percent of high school graduates meet all four of what they call the "ACT college readiness benchmarks." These four benchmark areas are: English composition, social sciences, college algebra and biology.

With students trying their hardest to be part of that 24 percent, it's easy to see why some people feel that standardized testing adds too much stress to young peoples' lives. It is perhaps telling that schools in China, where standardized testing originated, are now moving away from the system.

But, standardized or not, American or Chinese, it's noteworthy to mention that not every student gets test anxiety in the first place. If you don't, that's fine! Don't feel like you have to have it. Some people, like college student Dylan Wilks, just don't get anxious about tests.

"That said, I think a lot of what gets to students is the massive grade percentages that some finals count for," he says. "You could do extremely well all semester long and suddenly drop from an A+ to a B or C because you just weren't in the right head space or something on test day."

Thinking about that might give you a good level of anxiety! Keep in mind, though, that a little bit of nervousness can help keep you alert and maybe even a bit excited for the test. It's when that anxiety takes over that things can become a problem.

"Absolutely," says Ross, "[anxiety] motivates us to study or work harder. It perks us up during performance times. The key is to bring it back into balance: not too much, not too little."

Once that balance is achieved, it's just a matter of dealing with a normal amount of test nerves. Wilks has some easy, simple suggestions for students to help with those test jitters.

In addition to studying the material well ahead of time, "A good night's sleep the night before a test, and a quick note review before and after the sleep, are the most I've ever done, and it's worked well," he says. He also suggests staying away from some things people often go for immediately in the stressful exam situation: coffee or energy drinks. Caffeine increases heart rate, and can cause an increase in blood pressure, which is what stress does, too.

"I don't imagine excessive amounts of caffeine or any other stimulants really help," he says. They can just make the stress response worse.

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