"I studied, I do all of my homework, and I really thought I understood the material, but my mind completely blanked… I'm just not a good test taker…"
I can't count how many times I've heard statements like this from students. Like other types of anxiety, test anxiety is 100% normal. In fact, because one of anxiety's many functions is to motivate us, feeling some anxiety before a test is actually helpful. (You can imagine that if you were so relaxed before a test that you barely took it seriously, you would do rather poorly.) However, for some, test anxiety can get so strong that it significantly interferes with their ability to think and perform (Fehm & Fydrich, 2011). In these cases, the anxiety is no longer motivating, but rather getting in the way of achieving the goal of performing well on a test.
I have test anxiety! What can I do about it?
Research indicates that skills-focused cognitive and behavioral interventions for test anxiety are the most effective (Ergene, 2003). These interventions focus on identifying and changing the negative thoughts increasing test anxiety and getting in the way of taking tests effectively (Sapp, 2013). Additionally, a recent study indicates that pairing a cognitive behavioral intervention with other techniques such as relaxation and imagery rescripting is also effective in reducing test anxiety (Reiss, et al., 2017).
What is Imagery Rescripting?
Generally speaking, imagery rescripting works by taking negative memories and changing the meaning of them (Arntz, 2012; Young et al., 2003). For example, let's say that I have a vivid memory of feeling so anxious during a final exam that I passed out. The meaning that I create from this memory may be something like "I can't take tests because my anxiety is so strong it overcomes me," which would likely maintain or increase my anxiety in future test-taking situations. To rescript this memory, I may instead imagine myself being able to reduce my anxiety and take the final exam instead of passing out. In doing so, the meaning of the memory would change to something like "I can manage my anxiety and take tests," which may decrease my anxiety in future test-taking situations.
So does it work?
In a study examining self help groups, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with relaxation, and CBT with imagery rescripting, the authors found that all three treatments for test anxiety were effective (Reiss et al., 2017). Additionally, the authors found that participants in the CBT with imagery rescripting group experienced the largest decrease in test anxiety, compared to the other two groups. Although the study doesn't control for socioeconomic or systemic factors that may serve as potential barriers to education influencing test anxiety, the study does indicate that for those with test anxiety, several treatments can effectively decrease test anxiety.
You might also be interested in this article with some tips for managing test anxiety.
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Arntz, A. (2012). Imagery rescripting as a therapeutic technique: review of clinical trials, basic studies, and research agenda. J. Exp. Psychopathol 3 (2), 189–208.
Ergene, T. (2003). Eﬀective interventions on test anxiety reduction. Sch. Psychol. Int, 24, 313–328.
Fehm, L.. & Fydrich, T. (2011). Test Anxiety. Göttingen: Hogrefe.
Reiss, N., Warnecke, I., Tolgou, T., Krampen, D., Luka-Krausgrill, U.,& Rohrmann, S. (2017). Eﬀects of cognitive behavioral therapy with relaxation vs. imagery rescripting on test anxiety: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Affective Disorders, 208, 483-489
Sapp, M. (2013). Test Anxiety. Applied Research, Assessment, and Treatment Interventions third ed. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Young, J.E., Klosko, J., & Weishaar, M.E. (2003). Schema therapy: A practitioner's guide. New York, NY: Guilford.
Date of original publication: January 13, 2017