How to Overcome Test Anxiety

If you’ve ever had to get up in front of a group of people and give a speech or presentation, chances are, you felt some degree of nervousness.

While unnerving, this on-edge feeling is actually normal and healthy to a degree. Being nervous triggers our bodies to release adrenaline. This adrenaline surge helps us operate at a heightened state and can even cause us to perform better than we normally would. But too much anxiety can hinder working memory and reasoning, causing a person to perform worse than they normally would.

This is the case for millions of students struggling with test anxiety.

It’s estimated that nearly 40% of students have either high or moderately-high test anxiety, making it the most prevalent scholastic impairment in schools today. It’s also estimated that students with high test anxiety score about half a letter grade worse than their low-anxiety peers. Lower grades can shake a child’s confidence, contributing to even more test anxiety in the future.

If you think your child may have test anxiety, the good news is that there are things you can do to help.

How To Treat Test Anxiety

1. Identify symptoms

It’s important to know when your child is nervous and when they’re experiencing an unhealthy degree of anxiety. Some symptoms of too much anxiety include:

Physical Symptoms – sweating, shaking, dry mouth, fainting, nausea, vomiting, and rapid heart rate. Some severe cases of test anxiety can cause students to become physically ill.
Cognitive/Behavioral Symptoms – Trouble concentrating, “blanking” on well-known material, self-medicating with substances, negative self-talk, avoidance of school.
Emotional Symptoms – Test anxiety can contribute to depression, anger issues, and low self-esteem, among others.

2. Prepare

Anxiety is often spurred by the unknown. Help your child study early and often so the material becomes second-nature. Try different study techniques, from flashcards to multiple choice to fill in the blank, to get your child used to seeing the material in test formats.

3. Practice Deep Breathing or Meditation

Work with your child on different breathing techniques from daily meditation to breathing exercises to do under pressure. When you take a deep breath in, your heart rate quickens slightly. As you exhale, your heart rate slows. Repeated deep breaths naturally bring your heart rate more in sync with your breath. This causes your brain to release endorphins, chemicals that have a natural calming effect.

It’s no coincidence that deep breathing is the groundwork in so many types of meditation. This calming effect can be so significant that there’s research linking meditation to a reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms; as well as improved sleep and focus. Some studies show that meditation can even change the structure of our brains, improving neuroplasticity.

4. Check Your Diet

Ensure your child is eating a well-balanced, unprocessed diet at all times, but especially before an exam. More and more research supports a connection between diet and mental health. Studies have linked certain foods (like refined carbohydrates, added sugar, processed meats, and fried food) to contributing to feelings of anxiety. Conversely, other foods may help reduce anxious feelings.

5. Try Reframing

When you hear your child say something negative about themselves, intervene. If your child says, “I’m going to fail this test,” tell them, “You’ve studied hard, prepared the best you could, and I’m proud of you. No matter what, your worth isn’t measured by how well you do on this test.”

Sometimes, taking some of the pressure off of test outcomes will help reduce anxiety in itself.

6. Consider Outside Interventions

Counseling can be a great way to help build a child’s confidence, reduce stress, and combat anxiety. It can help identify where the anxiety came from in the first place, and offer specific tools to manage it going forward.

Neurofeedback is another option for reducing anxiety. Oftentimes, anxiety is seen as a surplus of fast-moving beta brain waves, and a deficit of alpha brain waves, associated with calm and focus. Neurofeedback training may help restore balance to these areas of the brain.

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