Everyone gets nervous for a test from time to time. Any exam—a driving test, the SAT or an elementary-school standardized test—can cause some anxiety. A low level of stress is natural and can help you feel alert and energized. But when stress becomes debilitating, it is time to take action.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, symptoms of test anxiety can include physical, emotional, behavioral and cognitive symptoms. Some common physical symptoms include headache, diarrhea, shortness of breath, dry mouth, light-headedness, rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating and even fainting. Test anxiety can lead to a full-on panic attack, categorized as a sudden onset of intense fear and anxiety. Sufferers may feel like they are unable to breathe or are having a heart attack.

Cognitively, students may completely blank out on answers, even if they studied the subject and knew the answer the night before. They may have racing thoughts and negative self talk, as well as trouble concentrating.

Emotional symptoms range from fear to anger to disappointment. A person with test anxiety may feel helpless and overwhelmed. Behavioral symptoms can be as extreme as students “dropping out” or skipping class to avoid discomfort and fear. During a test, students may fidget or find it difficult to get physically comfortable. Students may suffer from depression or low self-esteem.

How to Prevent Test Anxiety

The Mayo Clinic presents strategies for facing test anxiety head on. There are components of test taking that are out of your control, such as what is on the test, where and when the test takes place. There are many things you can do to help ease anxiety.

Eat, drink and sleep. This is where you have the most control. A brain needs fuel to function, so give it healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, rather than processed foods. Avoid sugary food and drink that can cause an energy crash during the test. Avoid caffeine, which can trigger anxiety. Start studying early, so there’s time for a good night’s sleep.

Practice good study skills. Ask the teacher, tutor or counselor for ideas on how to best prepare. The teacher might provide study guides or be willing to offer clues as to what topics to focus on.

Be prepared. Don’t wait for the night before to study. Create checklists, note cards and review sheets. Keep up with the workload, so you don’t have the extra stress of missed assignments. Maintaining good grades on assignments reduces the stress of having to “make up” for missed work by scoring high on the test.

Practice relaxation techniques. Use progressive relaxation, in which you do a body scan and consciously relax your whole body, one part at a time. Deep breathing and positive imagery can help you get a good night’s sleep before and relax during the test.

Get moving. Exercise is a great stress reliever and can help you focus during study and test time.

Build a relationship with the teacher. Ask questions along the way, so that by test time, you have more confidence in the material. Let the teacher know you have test anxiety. For younger students, set up a parent conference and come up with strategies in advance.

Identify learning disabilities. Test anxiety may be a sign there is something else going on, such as ADHD or dyslexia. If your child has an IEP or 504 plan, the school can arrange for accommodations, such as extra time, a modified test or having the test read out loud. Some students take their test in a resource room, which may be more comfortable.

Talk it out. A school or private counselor can help you talk through feelings and thoughts about test anxiety.

There are also strategies you can follow during the actual test: Find a comfortable position. Read the test directions carefully. Take the test one question at a time. If you go blank on a question, mark it and come back to it later. Take deep breaths and tell yourself that you are in control. Don’t panic if other students finish the test before you. Complete the test on your own time, and remind yourself there is no bonus for finishing early. Practice positive self-talk to combat any negative thoughts.

Remember, some anxiety is natural and can be helpful, but don’t let it keep you from functioning at your best.

Jennifer VanBuren is a Georgetown educator and mother of three.

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