A little bit of stress can be helpful - even healthy. A little adrenaline before a test or performance can give our cognitive brain an extra boost and fine-tune our focus. However, too much anxiety can overwhelm or flood the system and prevent us from functioning optimally. This is test anxiety – a form of performance anxiety.
Students can experience or exhibit test anxiety in variety of ways – physiologically (heart palpitations and sweating), behaviorally (avoidance, excessive procrastination, or cheating), and cognitively (inability to concentrate, intrusive thoughts of self doubt). No matter its form of expression, test anxiety can have debilitating effects on not only performance, but also self-esteem and self worth. Like any set of symptoms, an enhanced understanding of the “syndrome” and its origins helps guide our treatment of it.
The mechanics of anxiety
Our brains are well equipped to identify and respond to stress so as to protect us from perceived physical and emotional harm. If a student perceives academic challenges to be a threat, the brain releases hormones into the bloodstream, which signals the “fight or flight” response in the body. This activation interferes with thinking and access to cognitive processes. Additionally, we exhaust valuable energy is by attending to negative, intrusive thoughts and worries.
When we manage the anxiety through self regulation, we can preempt this physiological process and allow ourselves to have full access to higher level thought processes, and information stored in memory.
The antidote to anxiety is SELF REGULATION – this is a life skill which we refine throughout our lives. We can help children and adolescents acquire these skills during their school years as the prefrontal cortex matures.
The following are tips for self regulation:
· Anxiety 101: Knowledge is power. When kids can identify the inner state of anxiety and they can conceptualize the physiological process, they will experience an element of control. One is less apt to “react” to the process, when one has some objectivity about it. This is the first step in managing stress.
· Draw from previous positive experiences: Kids are empowered when they master challenges – emotional and otherwise. Thus, encourage kids to identify previous stressful experiences in which they performed as they had hoped. For example, athletic competitions and/or dance performances. Encourage students to reflect on their approach and mindset during these situations.
· Normalize test anxiety: Anxiety mounts when we feel alone. Thus, it can be helpful for youngsters to hear about vulnerabilities in adults they admire. Anxiety is human.
· Accurate interpretation of anxiety: Many people (adults included) perceive anxiety as an indicator of poor preparedness or ability. In fact, the slight increase in stress hormones can enhance focus and thinking. Thus, thoughts like, “I must not know the material, or I would not be this anxious!” are not accurate.
· FLEXIBLE vs. FIXED MINDSET: Maintain a FLEXIBLE, rather than fixed mindset: Many people (adults included) fall prey to dichotomous, rigid ways of thinking (i.e., A=smart, C=not smart). As a result, students exaggerate the significance of test results as if it were the sole determinant of their intelligence. This distortion contributes to anxiety. Alternatively, students who view the test as a challenge that they are trying to master, have greater access to cognitive material and skills during the test.
· Internal scripts: Encourage kids to think about the negative “scripts” they have assigned to themselves or that have been assigned to them. Often, these false beliefs become so rehearsed that students live accordingly. Encourage students to identify these beliefs, their origins and challenge them! Negative phrases with which they identify like: “I’m a bad test taker”, or “I’m not good at math”, fuel other negative labels and they become self-perpetuating. Sometimes, speaking to oneself in the third person “Dana, you can do this!” is a useful replacement to self-deprecating, negative “I” statements.
· Relaxation techniques: Addressing the physical symptoms of anxiety can redirect one’s physiology – as we calm the body, our thoughts become more clear. Slow breathing, visualization, meditation techniques are very helpful. It is important to rehearse them at non-anxiety-producing times so that the individual can recall the more relaxed state and associations.
Learning to control test anxiety is one of the many opportunities for young people to develop life long skills for managing performance anxieties in the future.