“It’ll be fine!” – How exam anxiety can do just that

Excitement, nervousness, inner restlessness – doesn’t everyone have a bit of stage fright before exams?! Most people would certainly answer in the affirmative. And that is quite natural and also important in order to be able to call up top performances at decisive moments! But real test anxiety takes on completely different dimensions, puts the body into a kind of survival mode and, in the worst case, can lead to a serious psychological crisis.Important: Test anxiety is not uncommon! About 15 percent of all adults suffer from test anxiety, with children and adolescents it is even up to 22 percent.

Test anxiety: Our body in a state of emergency

When we talk about test anxiety, we mean the fear of being judged on one’s own performance and of failing in a test situation. It can be the situation itself that causes anxiety, the preparation for it or even the examiners present. Probably the worst scenario for people with test anxiety is the so-called “blackout”, a state in which the fear is so great that everything learned can no longer be recalled. The following signs indicate such anxiety:

  • Strong tension
  • Palpitations
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sweating
  • Stuttering
  • Sleep problems
  • Headaches
  • Tension

For our entire body, the exam situation is a threat to which it prepares itself to be able to react accordingly. It releases stress hormones like adrenaline, sharpens all senses and regulates the digestion down. This makes it clear how massively our entire organism is under stress and why, in the worst case, we can’t think of anything at all at the decisive moment.

Between procrastination and actionism

“I’ll never make it!”, “Where should I start?!”, “I’m going crazy just imagining the exam situation!”. These are all thoughts that can run continuously through the minds of people with test anxiety. For many, the carousel of thoughts actually starts as soon as the exam date is announced, even if it is weeks or months away. The result is often the following two phenomena:Procrastination: All situations that have to do with the exam or preparation for it are avoided. Instead of dealing with the material, the household has to be done urgently or other activities, such as dates with friends, are used to distract oneself.Actionism: The other side of the coin is excessive, often unstructured learning out of sheer panic. Affected individuals have the feeling that they can no longer devote themselves to any other activity before the exam in order not to fail or to be able to reproach themselves afterwards for not having done enough. During exam preparation, both behaviors can also alternate and ensure an enormously high level of suffering, which can affect any area of life.

Where does test anxiety come from?

As so often, it is a colorful bouquet of possibilities that can promote the emergence of anxiety. Most often responsible for the strong fear are previous bad experiences in exam situations and high expectations of themselves, as well as expectations of the environment. Situations in which one could not live up to others and was perhaps even punished for it cause self-doubt and fuel the assumption of failure. Even negative reports from others and increased self-awareness can promote the fear of exams. All these are the triggers that eventually give exam anxiety a momentum of its own and make it seem uncontrollable. Preparing for an exam becomes increasingly difficult, which in turn causes panic to rise and can eventually lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure – which in turn confirms that you couldn’t make it in any case.

The good news: test anxiety is easily treatable!

In order to fight exam anxiety, it is worthwhile to first consider and implement the following points:1. Create a structured study planSuch a study plan can, especially at the beginning of the preparation, give quite a bit of security and the feeling of having the vast amount of learning material under control. It can help to divide it into small bites and to set (realistic) intermediate learning goals in the preparation time. Many people find it helpful to have concrete days and times when they put learning on their calendars.2. don’t be afraid of supportIt is quite normal that you don’t understand all the learning material straight away and for this reason it can be a great relief to get help from classmates, other students, colleagues or tutors. Also, not everyone likes to study alone. Making appointments to study together not only creates mental support, but also commitment. Caution: don’t be put off by others if they are studying more or are further along – everyone has their own pace!3. Act out “Worst Case Scenario”Sometimes before an exam, it can help to act out the worst that can happen. What if you fail the exam or suddenly can’t think of anything to say? What help strategy can you have ready in such a situation? Is it really such a disaster to fail or can the exam be retaken? It can help to think rationally about the consequences of a “failure” again and to classify the fear realistically. If you black out: take a deep breath and be honest. Perhaps have the question repeated, ask for a different one or, if it happens during a written exam, work on another task first. 4. Replayingthe examsituationWhen you find yourself in the dreaded situation for the first time on the day of the exam, it can be quite overwhelming. It can help to replay the exam in advance with friends or family, perhaps even in the same place. Especially if you have to speak freely in an oral exam, this can create more confidence for presenting in front of an audience.5. Take conscious breaksNobody can study continuously without being completely overloaded. Filling your head with other things during stressful exam times can also work wonders. Whether it’s a visit to the cinema, a meeting with friends or time out at the spa. In the breaks we refuel and gather new energy for further efficient learning units.6. relaxation methodsTo counteract tension, nothing is better than conscious relaxation. There are various methods for this, such as yoga, progressive muscle relaxation or meditation. Conscious breathing or a short meditation before an exam can also work wonders. Researchers have long proven that people who meditate regularly have better cognitive abilities. If all these tips don’t help, it makes sense to seek outside help. Whether it’s from staff at the student union at university, the guidance counselor at school, or even a trained therapist, it’s better to seek help early on before anxiety becomes so severe that it leads to mental illnesses like depression or generalized anxiety disorder.

  • Fehm, Lydia; Fydrich, Thomas & Sommer, Klara: Test anxiety. Progress in Psychotherapy (2022), Vol. 44.
  • Lohbeck, Annette: Examination anxiety profiles of students and their correlations with various student characteristics. Journal of educational psychology (2020), vol. 37.
  • Warnecke, Irene: Coping with test anxiety. Vienna, 2017.

Categories: Anxiety disorders

Verena Klein
Author Verena Klein
"LIMES Schlosskliniken specializes in the treatment of mental and psychosomatic illnesses. With the help of the blog, we as a clinic group would like to examine the various mental illnesses in more detail and present different therapies as well as current topics."

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