Don’t stress – it’s just a test

HOUSTON – When children complain about upset stomachs and headaches, it could be more than just the flu. This is the time of year when students are preparing for mid-term exams, and test anxiety could be causing their symptoms.

Anxiety about an impending test is a serious problem that can even make some students physically ill, according to a Baylor College of Medicine psychologist.

Test anxiety can be seen in students of all ages. Some will deal with it throughout their schooling because anxiety can be a genetic trait, said Dr. Megan Mooney, adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at BCM. Other students may be able to overcome their test anxiety, especially if parents respond to it in the right way, she said.

“If we respond by talking about being nervous and anxious as a normal thing and introducing techniques to cope with it, then test anxiety can be very manageable,” said Mooney, also staff psychologist at DePelchin Children’s Center and a counselor at River Oaks Elementary.

If, on the other hand, parents respond by letting their child stay home and avoid the test or by getting upset and reinforcing the feeling of nervousness, then test anxiety could become a longer-term condition.

Mooney works with students on relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, and on thought-stopping skills that get rid of negative thoughts that start creeping in at exam time.

“These techniques really need to be reinforced at home as well,” Mooney said. “All of the skills to decrease the symptoms of anxiety should be practiced. It’s just like learning how to play a sport – you have to practice over and over again so these techniques become a habit for children.”

Parents must also be aware of the messages they are sending their children, Mooney said. Schools can be high-pressure settings where there is a lot of competition, and parents can add to the pressure with their own high expectations. Mooney urges parents to talk about the importance of kids’ trying their best, rather than focusing on grades.

Students of all ages must also take care of their physical health at exam time by eating well and getting enough sleep. Older students also can help ease their anxiety by creating a schedule for themselves as soon as they receive their syllabus. They should find an optimal studying environment, whether it’s a quiet library or somewhere they can have music playing.

While anxiety can be overwhelming if not properly dealt with, Mooney pointed out that it is a biological symptom that exists for a reason.

“When we experience anxiety, we get a burst of adrenaline that makes us more aware and helps us focus and concentrate,” she said. “Having a little bit of anxiety about wanting to do well can help motivate us.”

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