17 May How to Manage Test Anxiety and the Pressure to Perform
Test anxiety and the pressure to perform academically or professionally can be detrimental to one’s self-esteem. Even some of the most brilliant people can struggle with managing their emotions when it comes to high-pressured situations like presentations, taking tests or speaking in front of others. If your child is showing signs of anxiety around school or if you are feeling overwhelmed about work, the tools in this post will be helpful.
How to Identify Performance Anxiety
Identifying symptoms is helpful in reducing the intensity of one’s anxiety and can also be very validating. A young man I was working with used to love school until state testing practice started. His mother reported that at night he couldn’t fall asleep, began complaining of stomach aches all day, and during the practice tests, he would freeze or start crying. This bright 11-year-old who used to love school was now avoiding it like the plague.
“There is no reason he needs to feel this way, he’s such a smart kid,” said his teacher. The truth is, this is exactly what was not helping him. After he and I started talking, he let me know that these tests were “all the teachers talked about.” He was worried that he wouldn’t get into college if he did poorly on his sixth-grade state test.
His environment was a huge factor in his anxiety and the manifestation of his symptoms. When we get honest with ourselves about what is going on externally, pressure from teachers, parents, colleagues or peers can make symptoms worse and reinforce worry.
Common Symptoms of Performance and Test Anxiety
Physical Symptoms: stomach aches, tension in chest or neck, headache, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, lightheadedness and feeling faint can all occur. The symptoms can have an abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort, leaving people feeling like they are unable to breathe or having a heart attack. They may experience these symptoms even if they think about the situation. It can be paralyzing both physically and emotionally to deal with performance and test anxiety.
Emotional (or psychological) responses may include, anger and frustration, fear and avoidance, helplessness, disappointment and negative self-talk are also common emotional responses to test anxiety or the pressure to perform.
What You Can Do to Manage Performance and Test Anxiety
1) Use kindness and compassion to improve motivation.
Many of us are conditioned to believe that pressure will motivate us to do well; this is only true when we use it for a short period. For example, running a race or meeting a deadline may make us go faster, but fear-based motivation only leads to burnout, chronic worry or avoidance. It can also be devastating to individuals who’ve learned to associate the outcome (grades, money or the attention of others) with self-worth.
2) Prepare emotionally and logically.
Before getting started on a big project or with studying for an exam, activate your support system. Talk to friends who can help you stay accountable, develop ways to give yourself positive reinforcement and set up time for self-care and relaxation. Get help with studying or ask how you can help your child feel more prepared. Don’t assume they aren’t trying; anxiety is hard to manage and they may have forgotten how to study or may need some extra help
3) Practice distress tolerance and relaxation techniques.
With this young man, we practiced DBT Distress Tolerance excercises when he was calm so he could remember to use them while studying and then eventually during tests. Grounding and progressive muscle relaxation skills can be helpful for many children and adults.
Before I give a presentation, I practice these techniques when I’m writing or rehearsing it or when I get overwhelmed or worried about the outcome. They help me reduce anxiety and improve focus.
4) Adopt a positive attitude.
Self-esteem is not defined by a test grade, what someone says about your performance or how much money one makes. Creating a system of rewards and reasonable expectations for studying can help to produce effective studying habits. There is no benefit to negative thinking.
5) Ask for help before things get out of hand.
Talk to a therapist to discuss tools and techniques to assist in reducing anxiety. Students can also visit the counseling center. Some schools offer support on the spot or programs that can help in developing tools and provide assistance if needed during the school day.
Authored by: Emily Roberts
If you or your child is suffering from performance anxiety or test anxiety, contact us to schedule an appointment or consultation. At Hartstein Psychological Services, we offer therapists and groups to help children and adults overcome test and performance anxiety.