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high school student experiencing test anxiety before exam

How to Deal with Test Anxiety

Standardized tests; the SAT, ACT, AP exams, and a host of others; are stressful. This is perhaps inevitable, as the tests are designed to be challenging for high schoolers, and the stakes that rest on the results of these tests amplify their weight. While this stress impacts all students, some feel it far more acutely, and suffer many more negative effects.

In this article, we’ll look at what stress is, and why humans feel it. Next, we’ll look at the ways students can deal with the stress of testing and test anxiety in general. Every student is different, and each will have their own unique ways of dealing with stress, but we will try to keep our advice broadly applicable.

What is Stress?

Stress is, physiologically, a fear response spread out over time. The intensity of this response can vary, and at the extreme end, can be quite harmful to those experiencing it. Indeed, suffering too much stress for too long is known to be very bad for your health.

So why do we feel stressed? Because fear is very important to human survival evolutionarily, and so we developed a well-tuned fear response. 

Fear is an important thing. There were once humans who weren’t afraid of a lion’s roar, but they all got eaten. There were humans who did not fear darkness, who got lost at night (and then probably eaten by lions again). Humans who did not fear heights, who broke legs or worse, and did not survive (and who may not have been eaten by lions, but who knows). A well-tuned sense of fear increases your odds of survival by alerting you to dangerous situations and helping you avoid or escape them.

But now we have changed the world. There are lights to keep out the darkness, fences to keep the lions contained, and while the fears we naturally respond to are far less prevalent (though certainly not gone), the response remains the same. 

The traditional fear response is a surge of hormones. Your blood flow increases, and your breathing with it. Your digestion slows or stops, and blood vessels around your body constrict. Your pupils dilate, as do the blood vessels supplying major muscle groups. While there are many names for this response, the purpose is to give you an edge in a dangerous situation. This can be very helpful when there is a clear and present danger to run from or surmount, but far less effective when facing the nebulous struggle of standardized testing.

The Stresses of Standardized Testing

There are two forms of test anxiety we commonly see in students. The first is a long-term build-up, where stress over a coming test accumulates over time. The amount of stress, and the impact it can have on the student, varies greatly. The second form is acute, with the student being rapidly overwhelmed by anxiety during the test itself. This too can vary greatly in scope and impact between students.

While these are both stress responses, their impacts and consequences are very different, and so we will discuss them separately.

Long Term Stress

As students prepare for standardized tests and see them looming on the horizon, they often feel stressed. The extra studying they do to ready themselves impacts already well-filled schedules, while the stakes of the tests themselves weigh heavy on their plans for the future.

Of course, not all students will feel this stress, and those who do will not always have a difficult time with it. A little stress is normal, and lets you know you have a healthy regard for the coming exam. If you find stress building to the point it negatively impacts you, however, that is when you should take action.

There are many ways to deal with stress, and you should work to find healthy outlets that work for you. Generally, taking some time away from whatever is causing you stress is the first route that we suggest. Taking a day off from studying and homework, or taking a few hours to do something just for the enjoyment of it. Giving your mind time to recuperate and regroup will leave you fresher, and better able to function when you return to your work.

We are not therapists or psychologists, and this is an article, so we have no way of knowing what your exact situation is. However, if the level of stress you are feeling long-term is impacting your physical or emotional health, you should consider seeking help. Many people deal with stress, and you should not keep suffering needlessly. 

Acute Stress

Some students will do very well on practice tests and feel no stress at all from the studying and preparation, but freeze up or panic when it comes time to take the test for real. This anxiety takes many forms, and many people suffer from it, not just when taking tests, but in situations where they feel overly pressured, or that the stakes are too high.

A little bit of stress while test-taking can be helpful, sharpening your mind and helping you ignore distractions. Too much, however, and you get in your own way. As with long-term stress, not all students will get anxiety on the day of a test or may feel it dissipate as they begin the testing itself. For those who do feel overwhelming pressure, there are ways to work on it.

Standardized tests are unfamiliar situations. You’re in a room with nothing else to focus on for several hours, with tight time constraints, and high stakes. One of the best ways to deal with these pressures is to familiarize yourself with the testing environment generally, and the specifics of each test.

We recommend setting up and taking several practice tests as similarly as you can to an official test. Lock yourself away from distractions, work within the same time constraints, and do the entire thing in a single sitting. In addition, try to set up some stakes for the test. These don’t have to be high, but they should feel real. Maybe if you score above a certain amount, you order yourself takeout, score too low, and you have to clean your room.

By setting up a scenario that closely mirrors the actual test, with (admittedly lower) stakes as well, you train your body to get used to the experience. This strategy works best with repeated attempts. While exposing yourself to stressors in this way doesn’t work for everyone, we have found it very helpful for our students in the past. 

Unstressed Students

Some students feel no stress towards exams at all. While this can be a good thing, there are downsides as well. Some students will still put in the work of preparing for tests, even when they don’t feel stressed by them. Others, out of confidence or lack of care, will not study at all. 

It is possible to do adequately on standardized tests without formally studying for them. That said, any student who is able to do adequately without studying would do far better if they actually took the time to study. These preparations do not have to be onerous or all-consuming, but taking time to review and prepare makes a big difference, especially if you are going for a high score.

While too much stress can be counterproductive, a little serves as a valuable aid, motivating your efforts and whetting your focus when the time comes. As with all else in life, it is good in moderation.

Final Thoughts

Stress is a natural part of life, even if standardized tests aren’t. As with everything else natural, sometimes it’s good for you, and sometimes it isn’t. Being able to channel your stress productively without letting it overwhelm you is a valuable life skill, and will serve you well in college.
Many students find that getting extra guidance on their test preparation journey helps reduce stress. We know a great deal about helping students prepare for their tests, and making sure they’re ready when the day arrives. If you want to hear how we can help you, or have concerns about your own looming tests, schedule a free consultation with us. You do have to take these tests yourself, but that doesn’t mean you have to prepare for them alone.

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