Test Stress: Helping Students Manage Anxiety
As the school year winds down, kids’ anxiety over exams can ramp up. While a little test stress can be motivating, too much can derail some of the best students. UR Medicine expert Dr. Laura Cardella offers tips to help when your kids are put to the test.
Anxiety in general can cause a variety of physical and emotional symptoms and may impact a student’s learning and success in school. From sleep problems and headaches to irritability and forgetfulness, too much of it can be paralyzing. Students with test anxiety may underperform on tests or hand in their assignments late. Sometimes they’re labeled as lazy or unmotivated, or considered to have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Some anxiety is helpful. There is a large sweet spot right in the middle, in which some anxiety can sharpen our mind, focus our attention and motivate us to study. So how do you strike the right balance and control anxiety, rather than letting it take control?
Here are a few strategies for students:
- Speak up. Talk with your teacher and make sure you understand what will be on the test and how best to prepare. Students with anxiety often worry more about the format of the test than the actual material. Consider sharing with your teachers that test-taking makes you anxious. They may have suggestions to help you work through it.
- Have a system. Figure out what works for you and establish a study and pretest routine. This consistency may ease your stress and help you prepare.
- Chill out. Find ways to relax, like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, and focused imagery. Pick one that works best for you and practice it as much as you can. Just like playing an instrument or a sport, the more you practice a relaxation method, the better it will work. Some techniques, like deep breathing, can even help while you’re taking a test.
- Eat well. It’s important to eat healthy and regularly to fuel your body and mind while you study. What you eat can make a big difference. Sugary foods may give you a quick boost, but when your energy level dips you may feel even more tired than before you ate. Avoid coffee or other caffeinated drinks that can impact your sleep and make you jittery. High-protein snacks, such as nuts and cheese, can help balance your alertness. The morning of your exam, eat a hearty breakfast that includes protein and complex carbohydrates.
- Catch some zzzzs. Sleep is essential for your brain and body. Teens need at least nine hours of sleep each night and younger children require even more. Chronic sleep deprivation can impact your attention, memory and energy, and can increase your risk of illness or accidents. Stretch out your studying over a few days and shun late-night cram sessions. Also, avoiding screens and bright lights an hour or two before bedtime will improve your ability to fall asleep and get the rest you need. A structured, relaxing and consistent bedtime routine helps to cue the body that it's time for sleep.
- Be positive. A positive attitude toward studying and test-taking can set the stage for good results. Understand that some anxiety is good and can actually improve your test scores. Once you have the test in your hands, turn it over, take a couple deep breaths, and tell yourself, “I know this. I’m the boss of this test. I can do this!”
- Ask for help. If these steps aren’t enough, talk to your doctor. You may benefit from talking with a therapist. There are proven methods of treating anxiety effectively and there’s no need to feel afraid or embarrassed to ask for the help you need.
Laura Cardella, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at UR Medicine’s Golisano Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor of Psychiatry and of Pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center.