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Thursday, 22 March 2001

Test Anxiety

Written by  Diane Wyshogrod, PhD

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QMy 11th grader is facing the SAT's and is beginning to panic. During his last school exams, he was so anxious, he couldn't remember anything and is terrified now that the SAT's are coming. He's bright and has always done well in school. How can we help him?

AFirst, it's important to understand that anxiety per se is not a bad experience. It is the body's arousal to protect itself and it galvanizes our whole system. It's the famous "fight or flight" response that human beings developed when we were faced with threats from a saber-toothed tiger and had to move quickly. Adrenaline increases, the heart rate goes up, our breathing rate increases, and our digestive patterns slow down all in attempt to enable us to run fast or climb the highest tree. It's like revving up a car before a race.

If we are facing a situation that requires better, more alert performance than usual, like the SAT's, we need to be revved up.

Studies show that a moderate level of anxiety enhances performance. The difficulty comes when the anxiety goes beyond the moderate level and becomes debilitating.


If a child has done well in school, but panics around the SAT or other big exams, I suggest a two-fold approach.

1. On the physical level, we have techniques -- such as relaxation exercises and meditation and breathing techniques -- that can cool the system down to a more moderate level of arousal. Through these, people can be taught to be more in control of their physiological functions.

A simple, but very effective technique is to breathe deeply and slowly, all the way into your abdomen. Do this several times and repeat to yourself some phrase such as "calm and relaxed and in control." It's best to practice this before you get into a stressful situation.

2. We need to examine the messages we give ourselves and to understand that we have some control over them. When we're anxious, we can't think well. That makes us more nervous and a vicious cycle is created. With test anxiety, it's important to interrupt this cycle by understanding what the threat is and see whether it is realistic.

Ask yourself, "How am I panicking myself? What am I saying to myself to make me so nervous?" It could be something like, "If I fail this test my life will be ruined," or, "If I fail this test I'm worthless."

If so, you need to understand that you're equating yourself with the test. You're saying, "I am my grade". And that is not logical. But a lot of kids do that. They equate performance on an exam with their worth as a human being.

There are many different ways to succeed in the world. Many of today's most successful people never finished college. Of course it's good to do well on the SAT's, but when you turn this into, "I must do well, or it's a disaster," you're setting yourself up for a disaster, because you're increasing the pressure on yourself and therefore increasing the chances that you won't do well.

Let you son know that he should expect that he won't be able to answer all the questions. He can plan for it; imagine taking the test. Make a movie in his head of taking the exam, every bit of it -- the butterflies in the stomach, walking in, getting the booklet, feeling nervous. Imagine getting to some questions he doesn't know and calming himself by talking a deep breath and saying, "Okay, I'll go on and come back to this later; I won't get all the questions; no one does," and see himself mastering the situation.

He is the director, producer and star of his movie. We usually scare ourselves by our internal films of failure. We can change the script. Have him practice this in his head over and over. Athletes do this all the time.

Last modified on Sunday, 29 May 2011 10:24
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Diane Wyshogrod, PhD

Diane Wyshogrod, PhD

Diane Wyshogrod, PhD, is a clinical psychologist specializing in anxiety disorders.

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