Although they may in fact be quite capable of coping with the situation, individuals suffering from examination anxiety will tend to ignore their capacity. In this way, relatively insignificant environmental situations are transformed into serious threats that may undermine the success of a test that has to be taken. In particular, people suffering from examination anxiety manifest a series of negative and catastrophic thoughts, which result in the self-induced conviction of not being able to pass a test, of failing, of making a fool of themselves with respect to others, a partner and parents and losing their esteem or, more in general, of having their reputation compromised (either in true or imaginary terms).

Such persons behave in a manner whereby their self-esteem depends on some kind of external recognition, which, in this case, is a final examination mark. Obsessed by results, anxious students imagine that poor performance may result in their losing the esteem and approval of significant others. Subjects suffering from examination anxiety feel that, during an examination, they are not only judged in relation to their scholastic achievements or academic standing but also with respect to their intelligence and personal skills and capacity. The rigidity of such a position is constantly fed by a series of irrational ideas such as, "I have to be perfect", "Anyone who is unsuccessful is criticised, emarginated and rejected by others", "I am a worthy person only if I’m successful." Such an irrational and absolute point of view is also projected into the future, which is imagined as sad and hopeless and presenting no chance of change. Such thought patterns are distinguished by a generalization of the examination situation to all other situations in life, and the individual will for example eventually make such statements as, "I’ll be a good-for-nothing”, "Other people will never respect me", "My life is going to be empty and will give me no satisfaction."

Examination anxiety appears before taking an examination, generally developing during the lead-up period of preparation and study and, apart from the cognitive processes referred to above, producing symptoms such as insomnia, a feeling of inner tension, irritability, difficulty in concentrating, memory gaps, obsessive worry about the exam and even psychosomatic symptoms. A subject suffering from severe examination anxiety may succumb to a moment of panic and may not be able to utter a single word during an oral test or may not be able to remember anything at all during a written test, regardless of how well the person may have studied or how the person had been previously evaluated. Anyone can fall prey to this kind of reaction and not even the most conscientious and diligent students are free from risk. In fact, one will find that it is quite often this very type of student that enters into a state of panic when the time comes to sit an examination on account of their fear of not being able to keep up the level of concentration and performance they had attained and had been maintaining up to that time.

It is possible to treat examination anxiety and obtain good results, especially with cognitive-behavioural techniques such as systematic desensitization. With this technique, subjects are progressively exposed to various anxiety-generating situations, starting with the less distressful type and then going on to experience those most definitely perceived as threatening. An association is created in each situation with a series of pleasant sensations related to muscular relaxation and positive thoughts. The first step to take which will allow an individual to derive benefit from the therapy consists however in the recognition and realization of the problem on the part of the person involved. It is very important for the person suffering from examination anxiety that he/she recognise the disturbance as a part of their personality, without falling into the trap of becoming over-critical with respect to oneself and acquiring an awareness that it is possible to overcome the problem.

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