Although most of us (at one point or another) have experienced significant fear, uncertainty, or dread about an upcoming examination or evaluation, oftentimes these milestones pass without incident. We get scared, our hearts race, and we ultimately live to fight another day. For millions of Americans, however, test anxiety poses potentially serious, life-altering problems that can indelibly change the trajectory of one’s career, permanently limit one’s options, and ravage one’s self-confidence.
Let’s dispel some common myths about test-taking anxiety. These myths are derived from actual (mis)statements people have made to me in my South Florida (Palm Beach Gardens, Jupiter, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, Boynton Beach, & Miami) psychological practice.
Test Anxiety Myths
Myth #1. Test anxiety is only a problem for students (i.e., once you’re out of school, test anxiety is irrelevant).
FALSE. Although test anxiety has been estimated to affect up to 25% of school-aged children and adolescents (Hill & Wigfield, 1984) and 15-20% of college-aged students (Hill & Wigfield, 1984; Eysenck & Rachman, 1965), non-students are not immune to its effects. In fact, test anxiety can actually manifest some of its most devastating consequences after you graduate. Many professionals in the medical, legal, scientific, and other communities know this firsthand. In truth, many untreated anxious test-takers give up desired career opportunities for less evaluatively-laden roads that are more easily traveled. Other individuals pursue their chosen career paths, but they ultimately find it difficult to advance in their professions. They may struggle with important interviews that might lead to career advancement, or they may fail mandatory exams (e.g., bar exams, licensing exams). In addition to professional embarrassment, these failures can leave lasting personal scars.
Myth #2. Test-taking anxiety doesn’t affect smart people.
FALSE. Brilliant individuals can have test-taking anxiety too. It is true, however, that individuals with test anxiety are at a significant competitive disadvantage compared to their non-anxious peers. In a review, Hembree (1988) found that test anxiety reduced academic performance at every educational level. Chapell et al. (2005) suggested that overall, about 2/3 of low-test-anxious students would be predicted to have higher test scores than your typical high-test-anxious individual. Clearly, in today’s competitive landscape, untreated test anxiety can be a liability that hinders success.
Myth #3. Test anxiety is an individual problem that requires an individual solution.
FALSE. Although treatment for test anxiety is often conducted individually, many benefit from group-based treatments. Behaviorally-based interventions that include mock exams can be particularly effective. You are also likely to benefit if you enlist the cooperation of trusted friends and family members, who can be instrumental in helping you stay accountable when working toward your goals.
Myth #4. Test anxiety is just “in your head.”
FALSE. Although test anxiety lives in your head, it has a strong physiological component that affects the entire body. Common symptoms include nausea, upset stomach, diarrhea, sweating, difficulty breathing, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, choking or smothering sensations, headaches, and dry mouth. These symptoms can resemble (or be associated with) full-blown panic attacks. The cognitive symptoms of test anxiety are equally unpleasant and include fear of failure, inability to concentrate, pessimistic thinking, and “going blank” or “freezing.”
Myth #5. It’s impossible to get over test anxiety.
FALSE. Test anxiety does respond to appropriate treatment, but it rarely improves when it is ignored.
Visit my companion posts to learn more about other problems associated with test anxiety and to get some suggestions on anxiety treatment strategies.
Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts below.