Stressing over Testing: Test anxiety affects students’ success, self-esteem


Sally Cochran and Maddie Davis, Editor-in-chief and Features Editor

Strategies, practice enable student to manage test anxiety

Palms sweating.

Vision blurring.

Heart rate increasing.

Trouble breathing.

These are all symptoms an anonymous Blue Valley student diagnosed with anxiety has every time she takes a test.

“The worst experience I had with test anxiety was freshman year,” she said. “It was the first math test of the year, and I knew the information like the back of my hand. I suddenly got to a question and became so overwhelmed, I couldn’t even read it. I knew the answer, and I knew how to get it, but the one second of hesitation that I had — where I thought I didn’t know the answer — caused the anxiety attack. I physically could not breathe, I was bawling and I felt horrible. I went up and asked the teacher if I could step out of the room. I didn’t even wait for an answer, I just walked out of the room and tried to calm myself down.”

The student described her highest point of anxiety during testing situations.

“In class, when the teacher is handing out the test is when my anxiety is the worst,” she said. “By then, I’m shaking and trying to calm myself down, but it doesn’t work. This has caused me to forget all the information I learned for the test. It sets me into full-on panic mode. I’m a perfectionist, and so when I know the information and it won’t come to me, it’s so frustrating. Sometimes I just can’t even answer the question because I get so mad at myself.”

Timed tests, she said, make her anxiety even harder to manage.

“Timed tests are worse because if I need to stop and calm down, there is no time for me to do that,” she said. “There’s always the ‘tick, tock’ of the clock in my head. I have to go through a lot of preparation for the ACT, SAT and AP tests, like telling myself that it doesn’t matter, even though I know it does. I just have to keep going. The first 20 minutes of any standardized test, I’m practically shaking. Even if I feel really prepared for a test, it still doesn’t help. I just feel vulnerable.”

After suffering from test anxiety during the AP European History test, she said she had to change her plans for future AP classes.

“Last year, I had such a bad experience in the AP Euro exam that history has a bad taste in my mouth now,” she said. “I opted out of taking [AP U.S. History] this year because my fear was that I wouldn’t have time to study, wouldn’t do well on the AP Test and would be incredibly stressed out all the time, which is how last year was for me.”

She said she was surprised teachers weren’t as sympathetic as she anticipated.

“My teachers don’t act how I expect they would when it comes to test anxiety,” she said. “I’ve asked a few teachers [if I could] step out of the room, and they’ve told me no. When I asked, I was having trouble breathing, so when I was trying to talk, I was sputtering and my face was red. I had visible signs of an anxiety attack. They told me to go sit back down and finish my test.”

The student said her parents weren’t supportive at first.

“Sometimes it’s hard for them to understand what’s going on and realize I can’t control the panic attacks,” she said. “They want me to stop, but they don’t realize that I want to stop, but that I can’t. I think they think I’m faking it or trying to get attention. It took them awhile to understand I wasn’t lying and I wasn’t in control.”

Even after handing in a completed test, she said she still has anxiety.

“I have a frequent fear that I’ve missed an entire page and that I’ll fail the test,” she said. “When I hear people talking about what they put for certain questions in the hall, I get freaked out when they say they answered something differently because I automatically think I’m wrong.”

She said she not only experiences anxiety during tests but also for other high-stakes events.

“I had a sports tryout, and we were getting ready to play when the anxiety hit me,” she said. “We were doing warm-up jogs, and I started feeling like I wasn’t going to be good enough and that I wasn’t going to make the team that I wanted. I felt so bad, and it made it worse that everyone saw and was judging me. It affected my entire tryout.”

After having many experiences like these, she said she decided to see a psychologist for help.

“It was my idea to see a psychologist,” she said. “It was not related to test anxiety when I originally went — it was for other anxieties. [My anxiety] caused such a bad response that I felt dizzy and about to pass out whenever certain topics, such as tests, were talked about. It worried me that even comments about certain things could set me off.”

The student said her psychologist gave her strategies to alleviate her anxiety.

“When I step into a testing environment, the first thing I do is sit down,” she said. “I don’t talk to very many people so that I can start to focus. I go through one of my strategies — mental meditation. It takes preparation before to get this down, but you think of your favorite place in the world. You use imagery to also think of calming events, like stepping into a pool or whatever will calm you down. The way I practice is actually what helps the most. I think about it every night before I go to bed so that my mind and body get used to thinking, ‘OK, she’s thinking of this, so it’s time to slow the heart rate, stop sweating and relax.’ Since I practice so much, I’m able to do it effectively before a test.”

She said practice is the key to managing her anxiety.

“If you haven’t practiced controlling the anxiety attacks, you just have to go with it,” she said. “It’s like a roller coaster — if you get on and you hate it immediately, you can’t get off right away. You just have to wait until it’s over. And that’s why I practice, so I never have to have that feeling.”

Experiences with students’ test anxiety give psychologist insight on school population


For BV students, they’re a regular occurrence.

However, for some students, they transform into nightmarish experiences, worse than any other day-to-day activity.

School psychologist Julie Seitter said anxiety before an exam can actually be beneficial for students.

“Not all test anxiety is bad,” she said. “A little anxiety before a test gets us motivated to prepare — it gets us motivated to focus. When test anxiety becomes negative is when it interferes with your performance.”

Seitter said most people who feel nervous before testing can overcome that anxiety by themselves.

“I think it’s pretty common to hear [students] say ‘I’m anxious about a test’ or ‘I have test anxiety,’ but it has to impact you pretty significantly for it to be test anxiety that you would need to get help with through therapy or medication,” she said. “[For] most test anxiety, there are a lot of strategies that anybody could use that help to diminish [it].”

Seitter has worked with many students to ease all types of anxiety, including test anxiety.

“I teach relaxation techniques,” she said. “If it’s a situation where it’s pretty significant and we have data to indicate that it is ongoing, then sometimes a student will come into my office to take a test. Then, they’re not feeling that extra pressure when they’re in the classroom with others around them. Sometimes just getting out of that testing environment can help tremendously.”

Seitter said therapy can help people with extreme cases of test anxiety.

Seitter said she thinks anxiety is treated properly at Blue Valley.

“I think our medical community and our mental health community understand the largeness of anxiety in our population these days,” she said. “I think we treat anxiety appropriately when people are willing to come forward and share their difficulties with it and ask for help.”

Seitter said students who feel they’re experiencing test anxiety should ask her, a counselor or a teacher for assistance.

“A lot of the adults in the building have experienced test anxiety, too, and have strategies of their own that they could pass on,” she said.

Seitter said she feels teachers are sympathetic to the disorder.

“I have worked with lots of teachers regarding students and their anxiety,” she said. “Teachers have been very flexible and helpful.”

Seitter said students can request accommodations — such as taking exams in a separate room — on standardized tests to help relieve anxiety.

“They have to fill out paperwork and provide documentation through medical personnel of that anxiety,” she said. “They would always require that the student have either a 504 Accommodation Plan or an Individual Education Program that would then legally give them accommodations. In most cases, they would have to provide documentation from the school that they use that accommodation regularly due to their anxiety.”

Seitter said test anxiety can be rooted in pressure to do well on exams.

“In this community, there’s a lot of pressure on students to perform well,” she said. “Sometimes it comes from the student themselves, and sometimes it comes from outside sources. It’s important for students to remember that one test does not define them, and they’re worthy and important no matter what. Just being alive makes them important. Realistically, look at your fear about a test that you’re getting ready to take. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t do as well as you want to on it. As long as you do your best, then that should be satisfactory.”

So, what is an anxiety disorder?

“Anxiety disorders include disorders that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances. Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of future threat.”

— Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition

Seitter’s tips for fighting test anxiety:

  • Get a good night’s sleep the night before.
  • Eat a good breakfast that day.
  • Prepare adequately.
  • Join a study group.
  • Do deep breathing an hour before the test. Focusing on breathing in and out takes your focus away from the test.
  • If possible, stretch or do physical activity an hour or so before.

Symptoms: increased heart rate, digestive problems (nausea, diarrhea, cramping or heartburn), jittery feelings, sweating, shaking and shallow breathing.

Why would testing cause anxiety?

“[Test anxiety’s] symptoms are rooted in your biological ‘fight or flight’ response. For whatever reason, your mind likely perceives an upcoming exam as a threat and then initiates a cascade of hormones that prepare the body for quick reaction in the face of this threat.” —