Do you freeze during exams? Do you find yourself thinking "I can't do this" or experience symptoms like rapid heart rate or difficulty breathing during exams?
Exam anxiety is a common experience, but some individuals are more prone to it than others. But why does this happen? And how can you manage it?
Exam anxiety is defined as the intense feeling of fear or panic before or during an exam or assessment. There are two types of anxiety: low and high.
Students with Low Anxiety
Students who experience low anxiety may feel slightly nervous before an exam but can focus their attention on their studies or the questions asked during the assessment.
Students with High Anxiety
Students with high anxiety experience an immediate anxiety reaction when exposed to the test situation, and they may try to avoid it altogether or endure it with extreme fear. High anxiety can even result in a sense of panic, where a student may feel that they cannot complete the exam.
Students with either high or low anxiety can respond to tests differently, but research suggests that effectively managing anxiety through CBT can improve exam performance.
The challenge is to recognize when anxiety has become so high that it starts to impact the ability to complete the exam. Physical symptoms of high anxiety include a fast heart rate, sweaty palms, shortness of breath, and nausea.
These physical responses are typically experienced at high levels of anxiety when the "fight or flight" response is triggered. While uncomfortable, these symptoms are not harmful.
How does exam anxiety affect your performance?
Research has demonstrated that individuals who experience high levels of anxiety during exams are likely to witness a decline in their performance during evaluation situations. Such individuals typically view exams as threatening, leading to intense emotional responses that make it challenging to concentrate on the exam.
These emotional responses can also evoke worry, which may interfere with effective performance on cognitive and intellectual tasks. Consequently, this can adversely affect the individual's chance of performing well on the exam and could interfere with their ability to showcase their academic and cognitive abilities.
How does CBT help students overcome exam anxiety?
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a frequently used method to address exam anxiety. Its approach centers on assisting individuals to recognize and question negative thoughts about exams that could be affecting their performance. In combination with behavioral therapy, it also aims to promote relaxation and tackle maladaptive behaviors like avoidance.
Here are a few tips to reduce exam anxiety:
Breakdown learning into steps or start small
To make studying less daunting, students should consider beginning with short and manageable study sessions, such as fifteen or twenty minutes. If fifteen minutes seems overwhelming, students can start with just one practice question. Once they feel comfortable with the amount they have started with, they can gradually increase their daily studying in small increments.
Create a study plan that feels comfortable to you
After you have gradually increased your study time to a manageable level, it's recommended to create a study plan. Avoid overwhelming yourself by trying to cover too much material in a short time. Assess the amount of content you can realistically cover within your remaining study time. Developing a schedule can help you feel more in control of your studying, which may have previously felt daunting.
Breaks are also necessary. So, take breaks.
Optimal brain and mental performance require downtime, relaxation, and rejuvenation. Therefore, it is crucial to take breaks while studying. For instance, you can alternate between studying for an hour and calling a friend, or studying for thirty minutes and taking a stroll around the block.
If you or your teenage child struggle with exam anxiety and find it difficult to manage fear and worry, consult with a certified CBT therapist. Working with a therapist can assist with applying strategies to alleviate and overcome exam anxiety with CBT.