Homecoming, senior prom, graduation – these are the common high school milestones that teens look forward to and remember fondly for years to come. However, not all highlights from high school are marked with such excitement and positive emotions. The SATs, ACTs, AP exams, and other high stakes tests are a rite of passage for most students. Unfortunately, they are often marked with nerves, distress, and trepidation. Although few students enjoy these crucial exams, for some, the nervousness transcends the usual test day jitters. These students experience a more intense form of fear known as test anxiety.
Some anxiety around high stakes testing is normal and even helpful. However, test anxiety can be a debilitating condition that greatly interferes with the student’s academic performance and self-esteem. Researchers have found that there is an optimal level of anxiety around exams; that is, having too much or too little anxiety both can have negative outcomes for test takers.
Having too little anxiety can cause a student not to care much about the test. This leads to inadequate efforts to study or prepare. An optimal level of anxiety will cause the student to understand the realistic importance of the test and its implications, without putting too much pressure on themselves. This ideal amount of anxiety typically results in the student spending an appropriate amount of time studying, getting a good night’s sleep, and showing up prepared.
How to know when test anxiety is a problem
What sets test anxiety apart from normal anxiety? Test anxiety is often marked by physical symptoms. These may include pounding heart, sweating, heavy breathing or hyperventilating, dizziness, nausea, headaches, and more. These symptoms can occur during the actual exam or while studying for the exam. They can even happen while just thinking or talking about the exam! The symptoms often feel scary and seem threatening to the test taker.
Test anxiety is also marked by important behavioral features; the most important is avoidance. Because of the fear and the physiological symptoms that surround exams, those with test anxiety frequently postpone their test dates as much as possible, avoid thinking or talking about their upcoming exams, and try to escape studying. While these avoidance behaviors may provide short-term relief, in the long-run they reinforce the anxiety and make it stronger.
Cognitive symptoms, or effects on the way one thinks, are also defining features of test anxiety. Those with test anxiety often catastrophize, or spend a lot of time thinking about the worst case scenario. For example, a student might worry about doing poorly on the SATs. They may imagine this leading to their never getting into college, and being unemployed for the rest of their lives! This type of thinking may seem irrational to some, but for test anxiety sufferers, these thoughts pop into their heads freely and frequently. These thoughts make it difficult for students to concentrate and can cause them to feel hopeless and helpless.
Lastly, test anxiety typically includes emotional reactions and symptoms, such as fear, dread, and sometimes, even depression. Test anxiety can also affect self-esteem. Teens may find that they are beating themselves up because of their anxiety while comparing themselves to their friends and peers who are not experiencing the same issues.
If you are a teen who experiences test anxiety or the parent of a teen with anxiety that is interfering with your or your child’s ability to succeed in school, consider consulting with a cognitive-behavioral therapist for treatment and skills to help combat this anxiety. You might also consider reading about CBT-based test anxiety tips.