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What Causes Test Anxiety and How Emotional Intelligence Can Help

If you are a parent whose child suffers from test anxiety, or you are a student who knows firsthand the crippling feelings of overwhelm or helplessness that takes over during moments you feel pressured to perform, I hope you find value in this article.

This topic is near and dear to me as I suffered from test anxiety as far back as I can remember. Due to my poor grades and lack of focus, I was also taken out of class for special tutoring. I vividly recall staring blankly at my workbook when asked to read and comprehend its content, overwhelmed and paralyzed by the pressure to perform and fear of being judged. My mind became void of knowledge. Maybe you can relate.

Despite these things, I discovered how to be academically successful after developing a skill called emotional intelligence (EI). In my final three semesters of college, I made it on both the Dean’s and Chancellor’s List, graduating with honors. This significant shift in my performance is one of the many reasons I advocate for EI. It has been the catalyst for my and many others’ academic, personal, and professional successes.

The first step in overcoming whatever challenge we face is understanding it at its core, getting to the root of the issue, and not stopping at the symptoms. Audra Stanton, MD., offers her expertise to help us get clear on what causes test anxiety.

What causes test anxiety?

"Test anxiety arises when we focus too much on the possible adverse outcomes of poor test performance. When negative thoughts about testing arise, it is often due to something riding on the outcome (i.e., obtaining a good grade, passing a course, possible college acceptance to their first-choice school, parent approval, etc.). These thoughts can be triggered by a variety of things, like speaking to a peer before testing, the sight of the classroom, a challenging question on the exam, or visualizing the consequences of a poor score.

When students become emotionally triggered and enter a state of anxiety, they may find it challenging to separate realistic consequences of their poor performance from the more intense perceived consequence. In moments when they fail to know the answer to a question, realize they are not as prepared as they could be, or anticipate the response of a disappointed or upset parent, fear of a substantial negative impact takes over. Suddenly, there seems to be much more at stake than a single test score.

These negative thoughts become pervasive during the moment of testing, interfering with the working memory's ability to tap into the knowledge needed to do well on a test—even when that knowledge is there. That shift in focus is due to the emotional weight of the potential adverse outcomes the student has attached to the test.”

Audra Stanton, MD., Faculty Director, Revolution Prep


How can emotional intelligence help us overcome test anxiety?

Awareness and self-regulation are the two primary elements of emotional intelligence that help us manage our response to stress.

Awareness is the foundation of EI and includes becoming conscious of our thoughts, feelings, and environment and accurately recognizing how they work together to influence our perception and reactions to the world around us. Dr. Stanton says, “It is common for students to perceive test anxiety as a 'nervous feeling' that indicates, 'I am bad at testing.' Many students lack the know-how and awareness to trace their emotions to their source—a foundational element of emotional intelligence. Once the root of their anxiety and triggers are clear, they can start to disconnect the perceived consequences from a single test question and free their brain to fully engage their working memory.”

Like any skill, EI takes time to develop. Redirecting our thoughts and behaviors is not easy, especially when we are in a state of stress.

Here is where self-regulation can help us transition out of a stressed state, in which the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is engaged—inhibiting reason, to a more neutral or calm state, activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Activating our PNS will signal to our brain and body that it is safe to re-engage the rational part of our brain that is key for problem-solving.

Self-regulation Strategies:

You can employ several methods to regulate your emotions and reduce test anxiety. Here are two that are practical and effective for any situation:

Mindful Breathing:

Taking deep and steady breaths is one of the fastest ways to calm your nervous system and a valuable strategy for any situation.

  • Inhale for a count of five. Breathing from your belly and in through the nose.

  • Exhale for a count of five. Allowing the air to drain from your lungs before taking your next inhale.

  • Do this exercise for a minute or until you feel the anxiety begin to subside.

Once you are in a calmer state, it is important to focus on your thoughts to ensure you do not reactivate your nervous system.

Replace negative thoughts with positive ones.

How we talk to ourselves matters. If you begin to have thoughts like, “I can’t do this. I’m not smart. This is too hard. I am going to fail this test,” you will likely create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you want to improve the outcome, it helps to replace those thoughts with more positive truths like, “I’ve got this. I can come back to that question later. This one test is not going to dictate my future.”

Examine and reflect.

Following taking a test, it may be beneficial for you to debrief and discuss the concerns you had going into the test and what you might do in the future to reduce those concerns. Would you benefit from studying more, taking a practice test, addressing your concerns as they arise, or practicing breathing exercises before entering a test environment?

The goal for reducing test anxiety is to alleviate the thoughts that trigger a stress response so that you can utilize the areas of the brain that are key for rational thought.

Personally, I found that my mindset about the information I was being tested on played a major role in how I prepared for the test and the overall outcome of my test results. I found creative ways to become interested in the topic, even if it wasn’t a topic of inherent interest, which helped me retain the information better and reduce the nerves going into the test.

You have to find what works best for you. However, practicing becoming aware of what you are feeling, the source of your feelings, and how to transition from a stressed state to a calm state are instrumental steps in reducing test anxiety.


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