by Dara Thorner, Psy.D, Georgetown Psychology Associates
Everyone experiences anxiety at some point or another, some more frequently and more intensely than others. When we are in an anxious state, we are simply experiencing the biological consequences of our brains communicating to our bodies that there is a possible danger, and that we need to respond. Starting with the amygdala, a sort of “phone tree” occurs throughout different regions of our brains and bodies, alerting us to the danger and initiating physiological changes so that we can respond optimally. When appropriately modulated, this is a very useful message; it can compel us to run from a physical threat, carefully attend to a sick child, or prepare for an important presentation. However, when our response to a perceived threat becomes overly sensitive, anxiety can have the opposite effect; instead of motivating us to effectively address the threat, it interferes with our ability to respond to it.
High stakes exams and performance situations are scenarios in which many people experience anxiety to a much higher degree than is warranted given the “threat” level. While some anxiety is necessary to ensure proper preparation, too much anxiety during an exam (such as that experienced when there is a threat to bodily harm) can result in a poor performance, regardless of the amount of preparation.
Test-taking anxiety is a common concern (although they might not know it) for students and parents alike. Parents may wonder why their children are not performing well on exams after the hours of studying and preparation they put into them. Students may wonder why they “go blank” or their thoughts “race” during tests, resulting in compromised scores. At times, of course, there can be other contributing factors, such as inefficient study skills and inadequate sleep, but often too much anxiety is to blame.