You might or might not need professional help. You definitely don’t need caffeine.
By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP
It’s normal to feel somewhat keyed up when you’re facing a challenge. Some butterflies in the stomach, a mildly elevated pulse, a bit of nervous energy, and a brief loss of interest in food simply mean that your body and mind are preparing to give their best effort at a task that’s important to you. Whether the challenge is an athletic contest, a speech, a job interview, or a test, bathrooms tend to be busy places before such events, even among the coolest performers. The body is smart, and it wants us unencumbered and in our most efficient condition before we go into the arena.
What’s not normal–even though it’s increasingly common–is when your symptoms become so severe they hold you back, and when they’re accompanied not just by a bit of nervousness but by outright fear. The mind, rather being than sharpened and focused by the task at hand, may lose its coherence and even go blank. These are indications that you have crossed the frontier separating pre-performance jitters from outright anxiety, a journey that is notoriously familiar among high school and college students at test time.
Test anxiety can occur at an earlier age, and it often does have roots in the student’s childhood experiences, but it tends to be more prevalent in high school and college, where the stakes are higher and the potential relationship between test performance and real-life consequences is increasingly clear. Symptoms of test anxiety include fear, of course, nausea or diarrhea, extreme nervousness, racing thoughts or a mind gone blank, excessive perspiration, depression, shortness of breath, and headaches.
Though it can be brought on by failure to prepare properly, by general fear and lack of self-confidence, or by perfectionism, test anxiety also can have its roots in negative experiences with previous tests. It becomes an especially serious problem when the experience of anxiety itself becomes one more thing to dread, creating a snowball effect in which test anxiety causes more text anxiety. More than half a century ago, Charles M. Schulz immortalized this phenomenon:
(United Feature Syndicate)
The result is that even students who have the ability to test well become blocked in that area like a golfer who has the yips and can’t make what would otherwise be an easy putt.
Scott Bea, a Cleveland Clinic psychologist who specializes in anxiety and mood disorders, says that a general predisposition to anxiety can be a factor but that memory also is crucial in the development of test anxiety.
“Our brains remember traumas very well,” Bea says. “People can develop a belief that ‘I’m just a bad test taker.’ Once you have that belief in place, it can be self-perpetuating.”
Such powerful negative memories are odd in a way, considering how much trouble we as a species have learning from our mistakes, but it’s how our minds work.
The physical discomfort associated with test anxiety can be a significant component of the dread involved, since we associate certain physical symptoms with mental unease. We’ve all had the experience of feeling abdominal discomfort because of mental disquiet, but sometimes a problem of purely physical origin may cause that mental disquiet because of the close association between the gut and the emotions.
That being the case, do you really want to take a test while under the influence of coffee, sports drinks, or other significant sources of caffeine? Especially if they’re laced with sugar? These products raise your heart rate and agitate your nervous system. If you weren’t already anxious, those physiological responses could trigger psychological ones. If you tend to be anxious, caffeinated beverages are test-day suicide.
(Mountain Dew: Jeff Bedford. Red Bull: Owais Ramzan. Starbucks: Kal Loftus)
So test anxiety can result in the psychological leading to the physical, which leads to more of the psychological, and so on. Notice how vicious cycles keep playing a role here. Bea recommends learning muscle relaxation strategies and practicing deep breathing to settle the body.
He also enjoins direct confrontation of the problem: Face it head-on, without delay, and make sure you’re as well prepared as you can be. We alluded to this in Ten Commandments (and Then Some) for College Success (October 19):
Procrastination tends to compromise performance by causing work to be done hastily and sloppily once time is short and the task is no longer avoidable. Perhaps more importantly, it creates an underlying uneasiness and sense of dread that undermine the enjoyment of life and the performance of other tasks. Procrastination is a cancer that metastasizes to the entire scholastic organism.
“If you move toward the thing that makes you anxious, your confidence goes up and your anxiety goes down,” Bea says.
And good preparation doesn’t mean cramming. Definitely not. As we said in our Ten Commandments:
The most effective way to prepare for tests is to go over the material in small portions, building up to the test over a period of days or, preferably, weeks, with plenty of repetition. This gives the intellect time to assimilate the material fully and relate facts to each other in a manner that enhances comprehension and retention. The gradualist approach to test preparation has the added advantage of affording the student the opportunity to get a reasonable amount of rest the night before an assessment. We recommend having one last look at the material before turning in, and another the day of the test. And go easy on the coffee and sports drinks; taking them to excess is begging for jitters and nervous diarrhea.
Yes, we feel it necessary to warn against the caffeine cult more than once.
“Have a game plan and implement it.” Bea says, “Get your attention off yourself and onto the test. Focus away from unpleasant sensations.”
It all adds up to not being passive, to relieving your anxiety by taking charge in an area in which you’ve been feeling powerless. A sense of things being out of control is a major contributor to anxiety, one that we often can overcome by taking the initiative. As psychologist Arlin Cuncic has written for Verywell Mind, “What you can control is your own performance, how well prepared you are, and how well you implement techniques and strategies such as progressive muscle relaxation and imagery.”
We realize that being anxious is like being depressed, in that the last thing you need is someone from the “rub dirt on it and just hustle” school of motivation pummeling you with Nike slogans. We know that one of the hardest things is to make yourself get going and take that first step toward doing something–but test anxiety becomes much more manageable if you can begin controlling those things that lie within your ability to do so. By all means seek professional help if you need to. Whatever you do, don’t suffer in silence; talk things over with someone you trust.
Remember also to build on any victories you have, however small. As Dr. Bea says, we excel at remembering trauma; but with a little effort, it might be possible to enhance your confidence by recalling things that went well.
We at The Coaching Educator aren’t clinical psychologists, but we’ve seen a lot of life in the educational sphere. For nearly a decade we’ve helped countless students get into and succeed at the right school, and we try to stay up to date on all things collegiate. Some of our most notable successes have been with students who were already in college and just needed some help being the best they could be. To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.
Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter, he has been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer. When not involved with The Coaching Educator, he stays busy plying his trade as founder and president of Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS).
References and Recommended Reading About College Life
Culp, Paul. “If You Didn’t ACT But Just SAT There: The Difference Between the Two Tests,” The Coaching Educator, 27 September 2018, https://thecoachingeducator.com/2018/09/27/if-you-didnt-act-but-just-sat-there-the-difference-between-the-two-tests/
Culp, Paul “The Myth and Madness of Multitasking,” The Coaching Educator, 18 November 2018, http://thecoachingeducator.com/2018/11/18/the-myth-and-madness-of-multitasking/
Culp, Paul. “Ten Commandments (and Then Some) for College Success,” The Coaching Educator, 19 October 2018, http://thecoachingeducator.com/2018/10/19/ten-commandments-and-then-some-for-college-success/
Cuncic, Arlin. “Coping with Pre-competition Nervousness,” Verywell Mind, 30 October 2018, https://www.verywellmind.com/coping-with-precompetition-anxiety-in-athletes-3024338
“Find a Doctor: Scott Bea, PsyD.” Cleveland Clinic, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/staff/2070-scott-bea. Accessed 27 November 2018.
Rodriguez, Diana. “Overcoming College Test Anxiety,” Everyday Health, 17 March 2010, https://www.everydayhealth.com/college-health/overcoming-college-test-anxiety.asp
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