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Test anxiety: Why does it happen and what can help?

Nearly everyone experiences some degree of nervousness before an exam. Real test anxiety, however, goes beyond normal nervousness. Test anxiety can prevent a person from being able to recall the knowledge they have learned. In extreme cases, the person will even experience physical symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks and blackouts, and may end up failing an important academic or professional exam.

Luckily, there are some tips, relaxation techniques and herbal tranquilizers that can help.

Test anxiety: Why does it happen and what can help?

Nearly everyone experiences some degree of nervousness before an exam. Real test anxiety, however, goes beyond normal nervousness. Test anxiety can prevent a person from being able to recall the knowledge they have learned. In extreme cases, the person will even experience physical symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks and blackouts, and may end up failing an important academic or professional exam.

Luckily, there are some tips, relaxation techniques and herbal tranquilizers that can help.

Test anxiety can occur in any situation in which a person’s individual performance is being scrutinised. This can include competitive hobbies and sports, but written and oral exams in school, at university or in a person’s career tend to be affected most. In these situations a bit of tension can even be helpful and mobilise energy. If the anxiety is overpowering, the opposite can happen: even days before the exam, the person will often experience a strong sense of restlessness and have trouble sleeping. Directly before the test there are often physical symptoms, such as sweating, trembling, nausea, an urgency to urinate or diarrhoea. Test anxiety can affect children, adolescents and adults.

Test anxiety in children and adolescents

Surveys conducted by the Forsa Institute For Social Research and Statistical Analysis found that around one in five children suffer from test anxiety. In addition to rather low self-esteem, pressure from teachers or parents is also a factor. This causes a serious fear of not meeting expectations: virtually paralysing the child and triggering a downward spiral towards precisely the thing they had feared. Stress hormone levels rise and knowledge can no longer be recalled properly. The panic grows and they may even have a complete blackout. This downward spiral can usually be stopped by following these tips:

Test anxiety in adults

Adults often suffer from test anxiety as well. Those affected often feel a great deal of pressure in assessment situations, such as career hiring tests or university exams. This pressure is often self-imposed, however. It may be due to perfectionism, excessive expectations placed on oneself and a tendency towards excessive self-criticism. Failure during the test or in the examination situation becomes a veritable Sword of Damocles threatening doom at every moment. Further down you will find some tips on how you can change this mentality along with information on strategies for doing away with inner tension.

Test anxiety causes stress as well as nervousness and restlessness, leading to the release of stress hormones and often physical symptoms. Pulse and blood pressure increase, causing sweating or trembling. The person may experience a dry mouth and often notice their heart pounding heavily. Before taking exams, some sufferers constantly have to go to the toilet and may experience stomach aches and growling, diarrhoea or nausea. There is often an interplay between the anxiety and its physical effects. Anxieties trigger stress reactions so intense that they interfere with memory and the ability to concentrate, preventing a person from producing an answer quickly enough. The sense of panic grows and performance further deteriorates to the point that the person may even experience a complete blackout.

In addition to these short-term effects, test anxiety can also have long-term effects. Some people already feel stressed and nervous for days or weeks before the exam situation. This can cause sleep disorders. Learning becomes difficult when anxiety has already cast a shadow over everything. The constant stress can also cause back and neck tension, headaches, irritability, depressive episodes and trouble concentrating. Over time, stress hormones can even increase the likelihood of developing conditions such as cardiovascular diseases. This is why it is important to take appropriate measures to combat severe test anxiety.

Normally test anxiety is not caused by a fear of the examination itself. Instead, it often relates to fears of the consequences of failure. The person does not want to show weakness or embarrass himself or herself. They do not want to look stupid to their colleagues, friends, classmates, teachers or parents. Sometimes, affected children or adults are also afraid of being looked down upon, laughed at or rejected if they perform poorly in a test.

Some cases can also be attributed to a traumatic experience associated with a previous exam situation. Perhaps the person was embarrassed by a teacher in school for poor performance. Many of these experiences trigger negative thoughts, such as “I won’t pass the test anyway”, “Everyone else is always so much better than me”, “I’ll never learn that” or “I’m simply too stupid” – all of which can become self-fulfilling prophecies. The following tips often help a person to successfully combat or even overcome their test anxiety altogether.

Children, students and adults taking exams should know that test anxiety is not something you have to live with. Many things can help. However, if you, or your child, experience such intense anxiety that it is seriously interfering with everyday life, you should discuss treatment options with a doctor or psychotherapist. The following tips may help in all other cases.

Before the exam

Even before taking a test or entering any anxiety-causing situation, the right preparation and study techniques can be quite helpful for keeping anxiety at bay before the exam.

Studying the right way
The study method best suited for the individual, combined with good time management, is the best way to prepare. This reduces pressure and stress. Time should also be set aside for study breaks. For this reason, you should start preparing and studying early on.

Studying the right content
For important exams it makes sense to take some time at the beginning to pick out the main topics that need to be studied. This way you will focus your energy on the key topics, which will make you feel more at ease.

Think positive
You can learn to be more positive. This includes recognizing negative thoughts. Words like “always” and “never” are a sign of an all-or-nothing mentality. Of course, no one “always” performs poorly or “never” does well in test situations. Ideally, you should reword these thoughts in your head and instead say to yourself: “I can do it.”

Periodically practice the test situation
Written tests can always be practiced ahead of time. For oral exams it helps to have friends, parents or your partner ask you questions or to practice presentations in front of a volunteer audience from time to time.

Exercise and friends
Nothing alleviates stress better than exercise. Socialising and having some fun will lower levels of stress hormones and help you to clear your head. So particularly during those stressful study phases and before tests, make time to take some regular exercise, frequent walks or meet up with friends – ideally without talking about school, studying or the upcoming exam.

Learning relaxation techniques
If you are experiencing a lot of tension and anxiety, there are techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic training, breathing exercises and meditation that can often be very helpful. However, you should start the regular use of these techniques well in advance, as they first need to be learned and practiced. Yoga, tai chi or Qigong are good methods.

Proper sleep
We break down stress hormones during sleep and replenish the body’s reserves. People who have trouble sleeping during test periods can take herbal products (such as zeller schlaf), which help them fall asleep and sleep through the night – without any adverse effects during exams.

Balanced diet
Tension often kills a person’s appetite or triggers cravings for unhealthy sweets. This is exactly when a healthy, balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals is particularly important.

Herbal remedies
Many plants and natural ingredients can help the body to relax, reduce stress and help improve sleep quality. For example, zeller entspannung is a herbal product containing a combination of valerian root, passionflower, butterbur and lemon balm.

During the exam

Preparing the right way can already help a lot, but what should a person do when panic strikes suddenly in the middle of the exam and they risk blacking out? These tips can help:

Relaxation techniques and breathing exercises
There are a series of relaxation techniques and breathing exercises that can be done quickly and discreetly in a test situation. These can be learned by taking a course in advance, for example, or from instructional DVDs and videos.

Exercise: Quick breathing relaxation exercise
We breathe faster when we are tense. The converse is also true: by breathing more slowly, we can reduce the feeling of stress. One simple method is the five-second exercise: inhale deeply through the nose and exhale. Count to five slowly with each inhalation and exhalation. Repeat five times.

Plan short breaks and move around
Movement can help reduce nervousness. When you go for a toilet break, you can also take a moment to do a few mobility and stretching exercises, for example.

Positive thinking
Sometimes mantras and short statements (known as positive affirmations) can help a person to prepare. For instance, children, adolescents or adults can say to themselves: “I can focus”, or “I can solve this problem.”

Notify the examiner beforehand
Teachers or examiners are often very understanding if they have been told in advance. Short breaks may be allowed or questions can be repeated during oral exams.

Herbal remedies
Various plant extracts and herbal remedies can have a calming effect and promote inner peace and relaxation: zeller entspannung, for example, contains a combination of valerian root, passionflower, butterbur and lemon balm.

Medicinal plants for test anxiety
Herbal tranquilizers are natural, gentle remedies that are very effective for people with test anxiety. There are herbal extracts that offer lasting relief for anxiety and have a calming effect in stressful situations. The following plants can be taken on their own or are often found in combination in products with complementary effects.

  • Lemon balm: Has a calming and relaxing effect.
  • Valerian root: In higher dosages, valerian root is suitable for use as a mild sleep aid; in lower dosages, it can be taken during the day to treat restlessness and mental stress.
  • St. John’s wort: St. John’s wort works best when taken over a longer period. It then helps relieve anxiety, fatigue, irritability and depressive states.
  • Passionflower: Passionflower is ideal for helping to calm a person down in any situation where they are under pressure to perform.
  • Hops: Hops have a relaxing effect while also soothing an upset stomach.

Other types of tension have symptoms resembling test anxiety, so treatment following the recommendations described above and use of herbal remedies is more or less the same. Outright anxiety disorders are an exception for which it is always recommended that you see a doctor.

General nervousness and stress

Some people are “by nature” more restless and anxious than others. Nowadays, considerably more people experience general states of restlessness, tension and nervousness than 10 or 20 years ago. The reason almost certainly lies in our modern lifestyles. We are expected to perform at a high level when we start school, during job training, during our university studies and throughout in our careers. Even in our personal lives, others (not to mention ourselves) often expect a lot of us. Work and family should both simply fall into place, our children should be raised by the book, and all household chores ticked off the list without fail. This often creates a lot of pressure, stress and anxiety. The remedies described above are also good for general anxiety, mental fatigue or stress and have a naturally calming effect.

What is stage fright?

Stage fright is similar to test anxiety, except that fear and tension are experienced particularly before public appearances, such as stage performances, TV appearances, as well as interviews, speeches, presentations in front of large audiences or when participating in sports competitions. The tips above can also be very helpful here.

Severe anxiety and panic attacks

Pathological anxiety or anxiety disorders should be taken seriously. One indication is that the symptoms are not short-lived and the person is unable to overcome them on their own. Panic attacks accompanied by respiratory distress, trembling, sweating or heart palpitations may occur. If you, or a relative, are experiencing any of these symptoms, self-treatment is not the appropriate course of action. You should definitely consult a doctor – otherwise, the disorder may get worse and put your health at risk in the long term.

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Dictionary of medicinal plants

Valerian

Valeriana officinalis - helps to relieve sleep disorders.

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Dictionary of medicinal plants

Passionflower

Passiflora incarnata – helps to relieve nervous tension.

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Dictionary of medicinal plants

Butterbur

Petasites hybridus – helps to relieve allergies such as hay fever.

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