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Exam anxiety can put you on the brink

Erika Faust | Interrobang | News | November 29th, 2010

It's normal to experience some sweatiness, dry mouth, a rapidly beating heart and difficulty concentrating on exams.

But what about when the nervousness becomes overwhelming?

Dr. Barb Richardson, a psychologist based in London, said there might not be an official line between regular nervousness and anxiety, but the symptoms are usually quite telling.

"I think the things you might see would reflect the severity of the symptoms ... (such as feeling) physiologically sick, extreme worry or dread, not being able to focus on the test, not being able to calm down enough to do the test. At some point along those lines, it starts to become what we might call test anxiety."

The Toronto Star recently ran an article about a study by Richard Driscoll, who worked with the American Test Anxiety Association to develop a test to determine students' levels of anxiety. The study by Driscoll found that test anxiety could chop up to 12 or more points from a grade in extreme cases.

"Some (students) might not even be able to write the test or participate in their program because of that," added Richardson.

For some, she continued, test anxiety is part of an overall anxiety disorder. "For some people, who have extreme anxiety as a way of life, test anxiety would be just one more example where their anxiety intrudes." These people may experience panic attacks or perfectionist tendencies that may border of being obsessive-compulsive.

For other students, test anxiety may be the cause of putting too much pressure on themselves or feeling pressures to do well for others. "Or they may just be the type of person who doesn't have a set of strategies or skills to calm themselves when they are in that kind of situation," added Richardson. "It may be a case of learning those strategies."

Many students can benefit from simply taking care of themselves. "We call it 'mental hygiene,'" said Richardson. "It's a way of regulating yourself so you feel as calm and relaxed as you can." Mental hygiene strategies include getting a proper night's sleep before the exam, exercise, proper diet and relaxation strategies such as deep breathing, meditation or yoga.

Being properly prepared for the exam can also save you a lot of stress. Breaking up the days and weeks before the exam into study times can alleviate a lot of worry. Richardson suggested creating practice tests at home to prepare for what the real exam might bring.

"Understand that it is quite normal to feel nervous going into a test," said Richardson. "Give yourself that leeway to say, 'It's okay to feel nervous; the nerves will go away as I start to write the test.' Put it in that context so you're not putting undue pressure on yourself about being nervous."

More anxious students, however, would likely benefit from professional help. "If you have a really serious situation — a clinical level of test anxiety — you probably need more than self-help books. You probably need to seek a specialist in the field, like a psychologist." A specialist trained in dealing with anxiety would likely teach cognitive behaviour therapy (changing your behaviour to alter unwanted feelings), skill-based approaches and relaxation strategies.

Richardson said she understands that not all students are lucky enough to have access to a psychologist. "It may be through Student Services ... that there may be people who specialize in that area and could offer support — not just for you in learning how to deal with the anxiety, but how to interface with your professors about this as well."

"You sometimes need an advocate to help you get accommodations you might need."

Fanshawe's Student Success Services in Room F2010 is full of counsellors who have plenty of resources to help you deal with anxiety about test taking. Call the office at 519-452-4282 between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. and book a same-day appointment. A counsellor will meet with you to discuss coping strategies, or even arrange temporary accommodation to suit your individual needs.
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