What's Test Anxiety?

Today's the day of a big test at school, and you feel awful. Your stomach hurts and you have a headache, maybe your mouth is dry and you feel like you have to use the bathroom more than usual. Your muscles may also feel tense and your body is shaky or sweaty. You know you haven't been bitten by the flu bug — but you may have a case of the jitters, also known as test anxiety.

Here's how test anxiety (say: ang-ZYE-eh-tee) works. Let's say you're worried about your math test because you didn't do so well on the last one. Or maybe you're kind of tense because you did great on the last one and you're the kind of student who likes to get all As. When you're feeling worried and tense, your whole body can be affected.

What Makes Anxiety Happen?

Well, because we can't outlaw tests, we might as well figure out how to ease test anxiety. Anxiety is a feeling a person gets when he or she expects something stressful to happen. When you're under stress, your body releases the hormone adrenaline, which prepares it for danger, like when you're running away from your older brother! Adrenaline causes the physical symptoms, such as sweating, a pounding heart, and fast breathing. These symptoms can be mild or intense.

Focusing on the bad things that could happen can make a kid feel more worried. A kid might think, "What if I forget everything I know?" or "What if the test is too hard?" Too many thoughts like these don't leave much room in your mind to concentrate on remembering the answers to the test questions. People with test anxiety can also feel stressed out by the physical reaction and think things like "What if I throw up?" or "Oh no, my hands are shaking."

These thoughts can get the person even more upset, making the anxiety even stronger. Now, the person feels worse and is even more distracted and unable to concentrate.

What's Performance Anxiety?

Test anxiety is a type of anxiety called performance anxiety. Performance anxiety is when a person feels worried about how they will perform on a specific task, especially when they think it's really important. For instance, you might feel performance anxiety when you're trying out for the school band or for the basketball team.

When you're taking a test or about to have some sort of performance, you might feel "butterflies," a stomachache, or a tension headache. Some people might feel shaky, sweaty, or feel their heart beating quickly as they wait for the test to be given out. A student with really strong performance anxiety may even feel like he or she might pass out or throw up.

Sound familiar? You're not alone. Ask other people and you'll find that just about all people — adults and kids — feel some anxiety before a test. In fact, a small dose of anxiety can be helpful, keeping you sharp and focused. But when your symptoms take over so that you can't function or when you're so anxious that you feel sick, you might not be able to do your best.

Why Do We Take Tests?

If teachers know that students get stressed out about tests, why do they still give them? Believe it or not, both teachers and students benefit from tests. Tests measure how well students are learning the skills and information their teachers have been teaching them and teachers learn if they need to present information in a way that is better for students to understand.

And tests are a part of life — from the driving test you'll take one day to the test you'll take if you decide you want to be a doctor.

Who Gets Test Anxiety?

Anyone can get test anxiety, but someone who really wants to do well might be more likely to feel this way. This is called being a perfectionist (say: per-FEK-shuh-nist). Kids who worry a lot also might feel anxious at test time. Perfectionists and worriers find it hard to accept mistakes they make or to get less than a perfect score. This creates more pressure for them.

As we mentioned before, not being prepared for a test (duh!) can cause test anxiety. Kids who don't get enough sleep also can be more likely to have test anxiety.

What Can I Do?

You might be reading this article and saying, "Hey, that sounds just like me!" If so, we're glad you recognize that this happens to you. Now you can start taking steps to lessen your test anxiety.

Here are some ways to do that:

Ask for help. Talk to your mom or dad, your teacher, or your school guidance counselor. Just talking to someone about test anxiety can make you feel better. Describe what happens to you when you're taking a test and these people can help you figure out some solutions. For instance, learning study skills can boost your test-day confidence.

Be prepared. Pay attention in class. Do your homework. Study for the test. On test day, you're more likely to feel like you know the material.

Expect the best. Once you have prepared, think positively. Say to yourself, "I studied and I'm ready to do my best."

Block bad thoughts. Watch out for any negative messages you might be sending yourself about the test ("I'm no good at taking tests" or "I'm going to freak out if I get a bad grade"). These thoughts can make anxiety worse and make it harder for you to do well on the test.

Accept mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. Be more forgiving of your own mistakes, especially if you prepared for the test and set out to do your best.

Take care of yourself. You'll feel your best if you get enough playtime, sleep, and eat nutritious food. This is important all the time, but be extra sure you get all three the day before a test.

Breathe. OK, so you already know how to breathe. But did you know that breathing exercises can help calm you down? (Just try not to take in too much air because it might make you feel dizzy.) Here's how to do it: Inhale (breathe in) slowly for four counts and deeply through your nose, and then exhale (breathe out) slowly through your mouth. Do this two to four times, and you just might breathe easier the next time you're taking a test!

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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