Most people have at some point experienced significant fear, insecurity, or dread about an upcoming test or evaluation. Often these milestones pass without incident, and in fact, some edginess before a test can help sharpen the mind and focus attention. Professionals in the medical, legal, scientific, sports, and other communities who face frequent evaluations to advance in their professions know this firsthand.
For millions of Americans, however, test anxiety poses potentially devastating consequences that can indelibly change the trajectory of a career, permanently stifle options, and devastate self-confidence. Being a professional adult doesn't reduce the anxiety one first experienced as a student, but often even makes it worse. Memories of previous stressful exams and the knowledge that formal assessments have not been conducted recently can actually increase anxiety.
Many untreated anxious test-takers forego sought after career prospects for paths that do not require frequent important interviews for career development or mandatory exams, but they ultimately find it difficult to advance in their professions. These failures can leave lasting personal scars and professional disappointment.
People with test anxiety are at a noteworthy competitive disadvantage compared to their non-anxious peers, as studies have shown that test-takers with low levels of anxiety often receive higher test scores. In today's competitive job landscape, untreated test anxiety can be a liability that thwarts success.
Test anxiety has a solid physiological component that touches the entire body. Common symptoms include nausea, sweating, difficulty breathing, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, feelings of choking or smothering, headaches, and dry mouth. These symptoms can be similar to, or even be associated with, full-scale panic attacks. The cognitive indications of test anxiety are likewise unpleasant and include fear of failure, inability to concentrate, pessimistic thinking, and memory lapses.
A number of things can prevent and counteract test anxiety and increase performance on test day. It is important to learn how to study efficiently, and establish a consistent pre-test routine. Being well prepared for the test is one of the best ways to reduce anxiety.
Space out studying over a few days or weeks and continually review the subject material and avoid trying to learn everything the night before. The test taker must learn firsthand what subject matter the test covers to best decide how well these topics are understood and thus how much study and review is needed.
Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, relaxing your muscles one at a time, or closing your eyes and imagining a positive outcome, can also help a test taker remain calm and confident. If before or during a test, panic sets in, stretch as hard as possible, tensing the muscles in the arms and legs, then suddenly relax all of them. This will help relieve tension.
Also, tightening and then relaxing the different muscle groups for 10-20 seconds is often helpful. Follow the same procedure for muscles in the shoulders, neck, chest, abdomen, legs, and feet. Remember to breathe deeply and slowly. Relaxation techniques are most effective when they are used on a regular daily basis as a preventative measure. It is therefore recommended that test takers learn how to effectively use them before exams.
Age-old wisdom of course holds true for remaining calm during tests. It is critical to get plenty of regular, solid sleep to avoid feeling tired, irritable, and distracted by the time of the exam. Eat moderate breakfast or lunch before an exam, and drink plenty of water.
Avoid sugary drinks, which can cause blood sugar to peak and then drop, or caffeinated beverages such as energy drinks or coffee, which can increase anxiety. Regular aerobic exercise, and exercising on exam day, can release tension. And arrive to the testing location in plenty of time.
Psychotherapy or professional counseling can also assist in working through the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that cause or exacerbate anxiety. Todd Stofka, founder of Philly Hypnosis, a neuro-medical hypnosis practice, and co-author with Pat Donahue of The Test Taker's Guide Series: Classroom Learning Secrets for Turning Test Anxiety into Better Grades, helps top professionals in fields ranging from athletics to business succeed by creating core confidence, the ability to release mistakes, focus on the correct thought for the moment, and foster a winning mentality to produce "in the zone" results.
Using award-winning hypnosis techniques, Stofka and his team show patients how to apply test-taking strategies to lower stress and anxiety before, during, and after an exam, to achieve better information retention, and ultimately to improve test results.
Although treatment for test anxiety is often conducted individually, many benefit from group-based treatments. Behaviorally-based interventions such as simulated exams can be particularly effective. The cooperation of trusted friends and family members, who can be instrumental in helping one stay accountable when working toward goals, is crucial. On test day, steer clear of fellow test takers who get tense. Panic is contagious.
Laura Kovacs is a freelance writer.
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