Test Anxiety and Placebos – Pills for test Anxiety?

white pills and one green pill on a white background

Some of you may know the feeling of test anxiety. An extreme fear before and during exams. Test anxiety often includes the fear of failure, not being able to retrieve the before learned knowledge when being in an exam, a black-out, or the fear of the consequences of an exam, such as a bad grade, punishment, or even the end of a career. 

How common is test anxiety?

Around 40% of all students have experienced test or performance anxiety. But also in everyday working life fears of important presentations and appointments can occur. Therefore it is likely that everyone has encountered or will encounter performance anxiety at some point in their lives – either in their immediate environment or with regard to themselves

Can placebo pills help with test anxiety?

A recent study found that placebo pills can help to prevent test anxiety and can increase motivation – even if the participants know that the pill they take is a sugar pill. In the study by Michael Schäfer and colleagues (2019), 58 students took part. All students were informed that although placebos do not contain medicine, they can still have an effect on us because the body could react automatically to taking placebo pills. The participants were divided into two groups: a group that received placebos and a control group that received no pill. The placebo group had to take two placebo pills a day two weeks before an exam at the university. The students in the placebo group were less anxious after two weeks – compared to the control group – and achieved higher scores in self-management skills, such as motivation. In addition, they stated they have more resources and a higher quality of life. Placebos, therefore, seem to be able to help healthy people, especially in improving self-management skills and motivation.

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Study check: Why did the placebos work?

It is not entirely clear why the placebos worked. The researchers in the study think that taking placebos might help to retrieve some kind of pharmacological memory, in particular, this means that we learn from previous experience that medication relieves physical symptoms or pain. Thus, we learn to associate a pill with pain relief and this expectation could influence the process of taking placebos. Another explanation for the effect could be the mind-body connection. Our mind and body interact and influence each other. Our brain influences what our body does and our body in turn gives feedback to our brain. Placebos could work in this context too. Further, the scientists assumed that patients often interact with a health care provider (such as a doctor or pharmacist), and therefore, might feel socially supported by the healthcare provider, which might have a positive effect as well. However, as the study had a relatively small sample size and long-term effects have not yet been investigated, it is important to draw a cautious conclusion and to further investigate the issue. We will keep you updated.

Self-care challenge

Have you ever felt a placebo effect? What did it feel like? Share your story with us and send us a message!

Would you like to learn more about fears and possible tools for overcoming them?

Then take a look at the following article about fear and anxiety. If you have any feedback, questions or additions to today’s article, please feel free to message us here or on instagram (@psychologyjungle). The anonymous comment function allows for an exchange of content. Make sure you treat everyone with respect, even when we are on the Internet 🙂

References (click to expand)

Schaefer, M., Denke, C., Harke, R., Olk, N., Erkovan, M., & Enge, S. (2019). Open-label placebos reduce test anxiety and improve self-management skills: A randomized-controlled trial. Scientific reports, 9(1), 1-6.

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