Assessment anxiety (or test anxiety) is very real. You may know this firsthand. Almost everyone gets a little nervous before a major assessment, in the same way most people get slightly anxious meeting a new potential date or undertaking an unfamiliar activity. We second-guess whether we’re ready for this leap, if we prepared adequately, or if we should postpone this potentially awkward situation. And in most situations, that reasonable level of nervous anticipation can be a good thing — enhancing your focus and providing you with a bit of bravado to get you through a difficult time.
Assessment anxiety, however, can cause us to doubt ourselves so severely that we underperform or overcompensate to the point that we do not do well on the exam. Don’t despair; you can still succeed if you suffer from assessment anxiety. The first step is to understand what it is and what it is not, and then to practice some simple strategies to cope with your anxious feelings. You are bigger than any anxiety.
Understanding Assessment Anxiety
If someone tries to tell you that assessment anxiety is all in your head, they’re sort of right. Our thinking is a key element of anxiety of any sort. On the other hand, assessment anxiety can manifest itself in other parts of our body as well. You may feel queasy or light-headed if you are experiencing anxiety. Your palms may sweat, or you may become suddenly very hot or very cold for no apparent reason. At its worst, anxiety can cause its sufferers to experience several unpleasant conditions including nausea, diarrhea, and shortness of breath. Some people may feel as though they may throw up, faint, or have a heart attack, none of which would make going into an assessment situation a pleasant idea.
We think constantly, and if we have important events coming up, such as exams, as well as other significant events, we tend to think about them seemingly all the time. Almost as if we have a movie reel looping in our heads, we can anticipate everything that may happen during these events — both sensational results and catastrophic endings. What if you oversleep on the test day? What if you’re hit by a bus on the way to campus? What if you get stung by a mysterious insect and have to save the world on the very day of your exam?
How about the best-case scenario? You win the lottery! Your book is accepted by a major publisher! You get a multimillion-dollar record deal! It could happen. Typically, though, life falls somewhere in between those two extremes. Our minds, however, (perhaps influenced by movies and books we’ve seen and read) often gravitate to those black-and-white, all-or-nothing results. Hence, we can become very nervous when we think about taking an exam because if we do really poorly, we think, we may have to face consequences as dire as dropping out of school or never graduating. Usually, this isn’t going to happen, but we can literally make ourselves sick with anxiety if we dwell on those slight possibilities.
Don’t let the most extreme and severe result take over your thoughts. Prepare well and do your best, see where you land, and then go from there.
Using Strategies to Manage Assessment Anxiety
One of the best ways to control assessment anxiety is to be prepared. You can control that part. You can also learn effective relaxation techniques including controlled breathing, visualization, and meditation. Some of these practices work well even in the moment: take a deep breath, close your eyes, and smile — just bringing positive thoughts into your mind can help you meet the challenges of completing an assessment without anxiety taking over.
The tests in the corporate world or in other career fields may not look exactly like the ones you encounter in college, but professionals of all sorts take tests routinely. Again, being prepared helps reduce or eliminate this anxiety in all these situations. Think of a presentation or an explanation you have provided well numerous times — you likely are not going to feel anxious about this same presentation if asked to provide it again. That’s because you are prepared and know what to expect. Try to replicate this feeling of preparation and confidence in your test-taking situations.