The following is a translation of an article that I published in the IsraPost newspaper. This is an article regarding Performance Anxiety and how to cope with it.
I Will Never Be Able to Pass the Exam! – Performance Anxiety
Zoe (15) is a diligent student, does her homework on time, and has excellent manners. But the thought of taking a test causes her abdominal pain, cold sweat, and nausea. She always thinks to her self that life could be so easy if she could simply learn and do her homework without taking any exams in school again.
No matter how hard she tries, she can not bring her self concentrate during the test. In the first week of school, while examining the material for her first test, she felt confusion and nearly blacked out. She could not focus on the test. She was able to read the questions but could not process it in her mind, did not understand anything of it even though she knew the material. She was so distraught that she decided to drop everything and leave in the middle of the test.
Zoe suffers from Performance Anxiety. A person who suffers from Performance Anxiety often time has the knowledge to do well, but is incapable to perform due to intense anxiety. In most cases, the anxiety stems from an irrational interpretation of the situation as threatening which that leads to difficulty in understanding the test material, retrieving and processing material from the brain to identify what is the right answer.
Performance Anxiety is more often more common in “perfectionist” type people that MUST succeed at a task and perform at their absolute best, people with various obsessive tendencies, and people who feel the urge to always please others. The anxiety leads to an irrational response of avoiding and approaching any task involving test execution.
Therapy focuses on three components of the phenomena: cognitive, emotional, and physiological:
1. Cognitive component – excitement before tests is very natural and contributes to raising awareness and arousal before test time, but at very high levels it can cause anxiety and helplessness that decreases attention, concentration and memory. This anxiety is caused not by the test its self, but by the meaning you contribute to the test (“If I do not pass the exam, then I’m not smart enough, I am a failure, I will never pass the exam”). Zoe learned during therapy to replace irrational belief with rational belief (“Yes, I am nervous before the exam but I studied hard and know the material and I will do my best to succeed”), and practicing positive thinking before facing the uncomfortable situation.
2. The emotional and physiological component of the anxiety (“I will fail the test, I can not move forward in my life”, which causes her to start sweating, feel nauseous and Shortness of breath).
During therapy, Zoe learns relaxation techniques, such as breathing and the use of guided imagery for relaxation. She learned how to deal with the anxious thoughts running in her mind and how to let them go. Zoe was taught to imagine before the test starts that she is in a safe place, such as the beach or surrounded by family. During practice she learned to replace stressful and negative thinking with positive thoughts about herself and her abilities.
Early intervention in Performance Anxiety is very important. If you notice any signs that you or your child are showing: emotional, cognitive or physiological symptoms of anxiety it is advisable to seek professional help, especially when you think Performance Anxiety may be causing you to avoid the test. Planning and organizing the learning process before the test is key and will improve the feelings of control while reducing anxiety.
Performance Anxiety is a common phenomenon among students, and by dealing with the problem head on, you can reclaim a sense of self-control and significantly improve your academic and social performance.