How common is performance anxiety? Almost everyone feels nervous or experiences some anxiety when faced with a test or an exam. In fact, it is unusual to find a student who doesn’t approach a big test without a degree of anxiety. Many students experience some nervousness or apprehension before, during, or even after an exam.
Too much anxiety about a test is commonly referred to as test anxiety. Test anxiety (a form of performance anxiety) is very common among students. It can interfere with studying, and may cause difficulty learning and remembering needed information for a test. In order to perform well in a challenging situation, you must be psychologically and physically alert. Some degree of arousal is essential for optimal performance: Psyching up can enhance performance. However, when Arousal gets too high (psyching out), we feel nervous and tense, and experience anxiety, which becomes distracting. Psyching Out can cause performance to decline. Further, too much anxiety may block performance and cause difficulty demonstrating student knowledge during the test.
Students with Test Anxiety Report:
- feelings like “going blank”
- becoming frustrated
- thinking “I can’t do this” or “I’m stupid”
- feeling like the room is closing in
- heart racing or find it difficult to breathe
- suddenly “knowing” the answers after turning in the test
- score much lower than on homework or papers
And, while performing:
- becoming distracted
- feeling overwhelmed
- missing important cues from your surroundings
- “going blank” and forgetting directions
- distracting thoughts of failure or of poor performance
- performing more poorly than in practice
Performance anxiety manifests in physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive symptoms. Physical symptoms include headaches, nausea or diarrhea, extreme body temperature changes, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, lightheadedness or fainting, rapid heartbeat, and/or dry mouth. Emotional symptoms include excessive feelings of fear, disappointment, anger, depression, uncontrollable crying or laughing, and feelings of helplessness. Behavioral symptoms include fidgeting, pacing, substance abuse, and avoidance. Lastly, the cognitive symptoms include racing thoughts, ‘going blank’, difficulty concentrating, negative self-talk,feelings of dread, comparing self to others, and difficulty organizing thoughts. Not everyone exhibits the same symptoms, and for many it is not uncommon for the symptoms to be stronger in one area over another.
Students can practice preventative skills to decrease the likelihood of experiencing performance anxiety. The following are a list of Do’s and Don’ts when studying for a test.
- Don’t cram the night before. The amount you learn won’t be worth the stress.
- Spread out your studying.
- Don’t think of yourself or the test in a negative sense.
- Don’t stay up late studying the night before. You need the sleep.
- Don’t take those last few moments before the test for last minute cramming.
- Do remind yourself that the test is only a test
- Do focus on integrating details into main ideas
- Do reward yourself after the test
- Do something relaxing before the test
- Do tell yourself that you will do your best on the test, and that will be enough!
Often parents ask what they can do to support their child experiencing performance anxiety. There are two things that parents often do to help their child who is scared of something, give reassurance and allow their child to avoid the situation. Unfortunately, these two behaviors of reassurance and avoidance maintain anxiety. When a parent gives reassurance, it keeps the child asking for more. Reassurance is positive attention, which rewards anxiety. Instead, name the anxious behavior for your child, and ask what tools they will use to manage the behavior. When we allow children to avoid negative stimuli, the child becomes less likely to overcome their ability to face and cope with the anxiety. Instead, push your child to a certain degree so they start to do things that are slightly difficult, learn to tolerate the uncomfortable feeling, and learn to realize they can cope with the anxiety.
What if the performance anxiety has a great impact on your child’s social and emotional functioning? Then it may be time to seek the help from a mental health professional.