Test Anxiety

Information on test anxiety, nervousness and anxiety

Select a Topic

  1. What is Test Anxiety?
  2. Diagnosing Test Anxiety
  3. What Causes Test Anxiety?
  4. Help for Test Anxiety
  5. More Information on Test Anxiety

What is Test Anxiety?

Test anxiety is a type of anxiety that can affect a test taker before, during, or after a test. It is an issue that many students deal with at one time or another. 

Anxiety is a normal human feeling that is part of life, and can often serve as a good form of adrenaline-- for instance, butterflies before making a speech, taking a test, or performing on stage. However, there are methods how to overcome nervousness and anxiety when they interfere with performance.

Test anxiety can also be experienced at varying levels. Slight exam stress can help by providing alertness, readiness, and helping you to concentrate. However, excessive exam anxiety can result in stress and negatively affect performance.

Test anxiety, just like other types of anxiety, tends to occur like a wave.It will increase from the time you first recognize it, come to a peak, and then naturally subside. If test-taking anxiety persists and becomes problematic, it is a good idea to seek assistance from the school counselor or another professional resource available in your area. Calming nerves through learned techniques can ease the tension associated with this type of anxiety and can help greatly in overcoming test anxiety.

Two Types of Anxiety

Anticipatory Anxiety
This refers to distress experienced while studying and when thinking about what might happen when you take a test. This could make it almost impossible to concentrate and commit facts to memory.

Situational Anxiety
This form of anxiety occurs while taking a test or assessment like an oral or dance exam. This can cause physical distress, emotional upset, and concentration difficulties, all affecting your performance.

Diagnosing Test Anxiety

Exam anxiety is a fairly common condition among students of all ages, and while it can often be diagnosed by experts, the sufferer is usually already acutely aware of the condition. A useful way how to overcome nervousness and anxiety is to take note of triggers that create tension.

Diagnosing exam stress involves charting the physical, mental, and emotional reactions experienced when anticipating a test, when taking the test, and after the test has been completed. This also includes thoughts on performance.

Generally, if a person feels more stressed, strained, or anxious when taking a test than at any other normal time in their life, then they are probably suffering from test anxiety.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Test Anxiety

Symptoms of test anxiety vary from person to person. Some students are mildly affected and exhibit few symptoms, while others experience severe reactions.

Symptoms of exam anxiety may include the following:

Before the test:

  • Crying easily, feeling irritable, or getting frustrated quickly
  • Extreme nervousness, irritability, dread, fear, or hopelessness
  • Fear of something ‘bad’ happening before arriving to take the exam
  • Drastic appetite changes - overeating, or skipping breakfast and lunch
  • Trouble sleeping the night before

During the test:

  • Inability to remember facts that were known before the test
  • Excessive yawning (body’s method of increasing oxygen to the brain)
  • Upset stomach, asthma attacks, headaches, perspiration, or high blood pressure
  • Mock indifference: "I don’t care – this test doesn’t matter anyway!"
  • Mind races or feels dull or "muddy"
  • Trouble organizing thoughts, feeling confused or panicked
  • Trouble reading and understanding questions
  • Trouble following directions
  • Making many careless errors on a test
  • Feeling tension as exam is being passed out
  • Physical symptoms: increased heart rate, shortness of breath, perspiring, dry mouth, muscle tension, headaches, vomiting, or fainting
  • Negative thinking
  • Blanking out on information studied

After the test:

  • Feelings of guilt, anger, depression, or blaming performance on others
  • Recalling information upon leaving the classroom or a short period later that was blanked out during the exam
  • Frustration with grade on the exam despite thorough preparation
  • Pretending the test meant nothing, and discard the result as meaningless

Test anxiety is more common than most students realize, and the symptoms are generally the same for almost all students who experience it.

Anxiety is your mind or body’s natural response to what it views as a threat. When threatened, your body triggers a number of physical and mental reactions.

These reactions can be organized into three categories, and when combined, create a state within which test anxiety flourishes. Each category is connected to the other, so anything that can be done to lessen one reaction will lessen the impact of the other two categories.

There are three categories of reactions:

  • Physical (somatic)
  • Emotional
  • Mental (cognitive)


1. Physical (somatic)

This is the easiest place to start. These symptoms are the most observable, both to the person suffering with text anxiety and to those around them – the body’s reactions to anxiety are hard to miss!

Common physical responses to test anxiety:

  • Changes in body temperature
  • Breathing problems (tightness in chest, breathing too quickly)
  • Muscular responses (stiffness in muscles)
  • Abdominal problems (an upset stomach, feeling queasy, nausea)
  • Headache/sensory responses (dizziness, light headedness, blurred vision)
  • Cardiovascular reactions (palpitations or tightness in chest, an increase in blood pressure)

There are many other related physical symptoms associated with test anxiety which include skin rashes, changes in eating patterns (eating too much or too little), an increase or decrease in activity level, sleep disorders (insomnia, nightmares, or in severe cases of phobia - night terrors). When a few or all of these responses occur during a test, it’s easy to understand how test performance suffers.

2. Emotional

Emotional responses can include:

  • Mood changes
  • Emotionally unstable responses
  • Feelings of losing control

These emotional factors can literally override other bodily functions and can easily lead to a student avoiding a task completely due to a panic attack or a full-fledged phobia. It is with these reactions in mind that you may ask yourself: "What good is it if I can memorize and learn a huge amount of information, but I can’t remember it during the test because of my emotions?"

The ability to control and normalize emotion is the key to overcoming exam stress.

3. Mental (cognitive)

Mental responses to test anxiety include:

  • Irrational thinking
  • Feelings of failure or rejection
  • Forgetfulness and memory loss
  • Loss of concentration and focus

This series of symptoms is due to negative thinking rather than positive thinking taking control in the brain. The result can best be described as students making themselves ‘sick’ with worry due to irrational thought, which then strips them of confidence and leads to an inability to concentrate and focus.

Are Certain People More Prone to Test Anxiety?

While anyone can get anxious before taking an important test, people who worry a lot or who are perfectionists are more likely to have trouble with test anxiety. This is because people with these qualities sometimes find it hard to accept mistakes they might make, or to get anything less than a perfect score. In this way, even without meaning to, they put added pressure on themselves. Test anxiety is bound to thrive in a situation like this.

Students who aren't prepared for tests but who care about doing well are also likely to experience exam stress. People can feel unprepared for tests for several reasons: they may not have studied enough, they may find the material difficult, or perhaps they feel tired because they didn't get enough sleep the night before.

Students who experience test anxiety are often masters at avoidance and may also have a problem with procrastination. They often avoid studying, and then a day or two before the test they start to worry that they have not studied enough. Procrastination also leads to last-minute cramming, which can result in the information becoming disorganized in the student's brain.

This pattern of avoidance creates a vicious cycle: procrastination leads to last- minute cramming, which leads to leads to anxiety, which leads to self-doubt, which leads to excessive anxiety during a testing situation, which may lead to the inability to remember or think logically.

What Causes Test Anxiety?

These are many obstacles that stand in the way of overcoming test anxiety, but the condition can be properly managed with the right care. It may be past experiences of blanking out on tests or the inability to readily retrieve answers to questions that can bring on an episode of test anxiety. It could also be a lack of preparation for an exam which is a real reason to be worried about test performance.

Errors in time management, poor study habits, failure to properly organize material and cramming the night before the exam are also likely to increase test anxiety.

If a test has been adequately prepared for, the precipitating anxiety may result from negative thinking and worries.

Focusing on past test performances, how friends and other classmates are doing, or the negative consequences of doing poorly are also major factors contributing to test anxiety.

Students who experience test anxiety tend to be the type of people who put a lot of pressure on themselves to perform well. They often have unusually high expectations for themselves and, many times, have been very good students in the past.

When these students begin to experience low grades for the first time, usually in college, their image of themselves as a smart person begins to erode. They then put pressure on themselves to perform better, but often put off studying longer than they should. This initiates a cycle of self-doubt and irrational belief that can result in high anxiety levels during testing situations.

Common Causes of Text Anxiety

Here are the most common causes of text anxiety:

  • Learned behavior
  • The direct association of grades and personal worth
  • A feeling of a lack of control
  • A teacher embarrassing a student
  • Being placed into an academic position above one's ability
  • A fear of alienation from parents, family, and friends due to poor grades
  • Timed tests and the fear of not finishing the test, even if one can do all the problems

Ineffective study methods and procrastination can lead to anxiety and a lowered self-image. Poor performance in a course can lead to increased pressure on oneself, especially if the outcome of a test or of a course is very important. A single experience of extreme test anxiety can leave a student uncertain if it will occur again.

Focusing on the bad things that could happen also fuels test anxiety. For example, someone worrying about doing poorly might think thoughts like, "What if I forget everything I know?" or "What if the test is too hard?"

Too many thoughts like these leave no mental space for thinking about the test questions. People with test anxiety can also feel stressed out by their physical reaction and think things like "What if I throw up?" or "Oh no, my hands are shaking."

The more a person focuses on the bad things that could happen, the stronger the feeling of anxiety becomes. This makes the test-taker feel worse, and because his or her head is full of distracting thoughts and fears, it can increase the possibility that they will do under-perform on the test.

Help for Test Anxiety?

Test anxiety can be a real problem, especially when the stresses reach a ehight where the nervousness takes over and the test taker cannot even focus on the test questions and do their best work. However, there are steps you can take to keep test anxiety at a manageable level and overcome nervousness.

Traditional strategies such as developing improved studying and test-taking skills can make a significant difference. For example, students can learn classroom note-taking and graphic-organization techniques to assist them in better preparing for tests, thus calming nerves.

Along with study skills, students can be taught effective study habits for tests, which can be a positive first step in overcoming test anxiety. Study habits have to do with planning (how, when, and where you study), time management, and organizational skills.

Everything takes time and practive, and learning how to overcome nervousness and anxiety is no different. Although it will not disappear overnight, facing and dealing with test anxiety will help you learn stress management and overcome nervousness, which can prove to be a valuable skill in many situations besides taking tests.

Of course, taking care of your health-such as getting enough sleep, exercise, and health food before a test - can help keep your mind working at its best. Students who get a full eight hours sleep the night before a test are more likely to figure out the problems than those who stay awake the entire night before studying.

The good news for students who experience test anxiety is that it may be easily conquered if they are willing to follow some guidelines and practice some well-established techniques. Research indicates that when stdudents have tools and strategies that build both emotional skills and healthy physical habits, overcoming test anxiety and its associated symptoms is attainable. As a result, they improve their ability to prepare for and perform on exams.

The most frequently mentioned strategies address the following areas:

    Knowledge of testing conditions
    Adequate preparation through improvement of test-taking and study skills
    Effective health habits, exercise, and good nutrition
    Monitoring of thinking patterns and positive self-talk

More Information on Test Anxiety

Relaxation Techniques Used to Relieve Test Anxiety

There are both short-term and long-term relaxation response techniques that help control emotional (somatic) and worry (cognitive) exam anxiety. Once these procedures are learned, the relaxation response will take the place of an anxiety response.

Tensing and Relaxing Method

1. Put your feet flat on the floor.

2. With your hands, grab underneath the chair.

3. Push down with your feet and pull up on your chair at the same time for about five seconds.

4. Relax for five to ten seconds.

Repeat the procedure two or three times, and relax all your muscles except the ones that are actually used to take the test.

 The Palming Method

1. Close and cover your eyes using the center of the palms of your hands.

2. Prevent your hands from touching your eyes by resting the lower parts of your palms on your cheekbones and placing your fingers on your forehead. Your eyeballs must not be touched, rubbed, or handled in any way.

3. Think of some real or imaginary relaxing scene. Mentally visualize this scene, and picture the scene as if you were actually there, looking through your own eyes.

4. Visualize this relaxing scene for one to two minutes.

The Deep Breathing Method

1. Sit straight up in your chair, in a good posture position.

2. Slowly inhale through your nose.

3. As you inhale, first fill the lower section of your lungs and work your way upto the upper part of your lungs.

4. Hold your breath for a few seconds, then exhale slowly through your mouth.

5. Wait a few seconds and repeat the cycle.

The Thought-Stopping Technique

Silently shout to yourself, "Stop!" or "Stop thinking about that!" After your silent shout, either relax yourself or repeat one of your positive self-talk statements.

You may have to shout to yourself several times during a test or while doing homework to control negative self-talk! After every ‘shout’, use a different relaxation technique/scene or positive self-talk statement.

Thought-stopping works because it interrupts the worry before it can cause high anxiety or negative emotions. During the interruption, you can replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk. Students with high worry anxiety should practice this technique three days to one week before taking a test.

Tips for Controlling an Episode of Test Anxiety
  • Tell yourself, "I can be anxious later, now is the time to take the exam."
  • Counter negative thoughts with other, more valid thoughts like, "I don’t have to be perfect."
  • Tense and relax the muscles throughout your body.
  • Take a couple of slow, deep breaths and try to maintain a positive attitude.
  • If allowed, get a drink or go to the bathroom.
  • Ask the instructor a question (but don't ask for answers).
  • If allowed, eat something. A handful of nuts and raisins will give you an energy boost.
  • Do something different. Break your pencil lead, then sharpen it. This allows you to do something physical – and can distract your mind momentarily until you get back on track.
  • Know that there is no such thing as failure-- the only failure is not trying at all, so strive to do your personal best!
  • Come to the understanding that you will not know every question on the test, but feel confident and give yourself praise for trying, even if you don’t get the score you want.
  • Tense and relax the muscles in several parts of your body, then take several deep breaths with your eyes closed.
  • Try calming yourself by saying a couple of sentences like: "This test will not permanently affect my life. I'm going to feel calm and relaxed."
Lifestyle Tips for Students

Practice the neutral tool: It’s important to catch negative mind loops that reinforce self-doubt or uncomfortable feelings. Every time you catch a negative thought repeating itself, stop the loop and practice going to neutral. Do this in the days leading up to the test, right before, and during the test.

Address the what-if questions: A lot of times before we have to do something like take a test, much of the anxiety we feel is a build-up from negative "what-if’" thoughts. What if I fail, what if I can’t remember anything, or what if I run out of time? Try writing a what-if question that is positive and can help you take the big deal out of the situation and begin to see things in a different way. Examples of these kinds of questions are, "What if I can remember more than I think I can?" "What if I feel calmer than I think I can?"

Think good thoughts: When you feel nervous or anxious, try this. You can do it as many times as you need to or want. Remember something that makes you feel good. Maybe it is your pet or how you felt after a fun day with your friends. After you remember how you felt, hold that feeling. Let yourself feel that feeling for 10-20 seconds or more. It’s important to let yourself really feel that good feeling all over again. Practice this tool right before the big test.

Get enough sleep: Big tests require a lot of energy and stamina to be able to focus for several hours. Make sure you get at least eight hours of sleep the night before the test.

Have fun: Do something fun the night before to take your mind off the test. That way, your mind and emotions are more relaxed in the time leading up to the test.

Eat a hearty breakfast: The brain needs a lot of energy to maintain focus on a big test for several hours. Eat a hearty and healthy breakfast, including complex carbohydrates and protein to make your energy last as long as possible. Foods such as eggs, cereal, and whole-wheat toast help energize your brain to think more clearly and longer, compared with the fast-disappearing bolt of energy from drinking a soda or eating a cookie for breakfast. For a snack, bring simple foods such as peanut butter and crackers or cheese and crackers to sustain energy until lunch.

Dealing with Test Anxiety - The Dos and Don'ts


...arrive too early or late to the exam.

...discuss the exam with others while you’re waiting for the exam. The anxiety of others can "rub off" and suddenly you begin to doubt yourself.

...forget to breathe properly during the test! Take deep breaths to help you relax.

...get bogged down and worry about questions you don’t know; move on to the next question. The answer may come to you or you may get clues from other exam questions.

...rush through the test, but work at a comfortable pace and don’t worry about how far along classmates are on the test.

...not dwell on your mistakes.

...cram for an exam. The amount you learn won't be worth the stress.

...think of yourself or the test in a negative sense.

...stay up late studying the night before. You need the sleep. Begin studying a week in advance if possible.

...spend time with classmates who generate stress for you on test day.

...take those last few moments before the test for last minute cramming. Try to relax and spend that time reading the newspaper or some other distraction.



...use statements such as "this is only one test," "I am familiar with this material," "I have the ability to do this," "this test does not reflect on my intelligence," etc.

...change body position now and then.

...go to the bathroom 15 minutes before the exam starts so that your bladder is empty for the long stretch you will spend sitting and writing.

...eat a small handful of nuts and raisins (if allowed) - this will give you a boost of energy.

...work on the easiest portions of the test first.

...remind yourself that the test is only a test.

...focus on integrating details into main ideas.

...something relaxing the last hour before the test.

...reward yourself when you are finished with the exam.

...tell yourself that you will do your best on the test, and that will be enough!

How to Set Up a Plan for Test Day

Eat a balanced breakfast – this will give you energy and mental stamina.

Listen carefully to the final instructions of the teacher. (How much time do you have to complete the test? Do all the questions count equally? Are there any corrections, changes, or additions to the test?) Also, try and sit in a location that you feel will be least distracting.

Things to Do BEFORE the Exam:

  • Try to avoid talking with other students right before the exam. Their anxieties may rub off on you.
  • Choose a seat in a place with few distractions (probably near the front).
  • Put things in perspective. Remind yourself that your entire future doesn't depend on this exam. There will be other exams and other courses. Many students fail a test or two but go on to have successful careers.
  • Remind yourself of past successes. Think of a tough course or task in which you struggled but eventually succeeded. Tell yourself that if you did well in the past, you can do well on the upcoming exam.
  • Don't give a test the power to define you. An exam won't tell you whether you're brilliant or stupid. Your performance on an exam mostly depends on how well you studied for the test, the quality of your prior education, and the test-taking strategies you use.
  • Visualize completing the test successfully despite your anxiety. Play the entire "event" in your mind – picture yourself walking in calmly, working at a steady pace, not getting flustered, finishing and handing your test in with ease!
  • Expect a few "curve balls" on the exam. Remind yourself that you're not expecting to get 100% on the exam; when you encounter a curve ball on the exam, you're not going to get upset and lose your concentration. Instead, you will simply skip that question for now and return to it later to make an attempt.

Tips to Use When you Are TAKING the Test :

  • Do an info dump. As soon as you get your test, quickly jot down any main formulas or key phrases in the margin that you have learned that you feel you might forget as the test progresses.
  • Preview the test before you answer anything. This gets you thinking about the material. Also, if you recognize a question as relevant to a certain formula or section of info learned, make a note in the margin.
  • Quickly calculate how much time you should allow for each section. Make sure to note the point value of each question. This will give you some ideas on budgeting your time. (You don't want to spend 30 minutes on an essay question that counts only 5 points!)


.tinymce-seo h1, .tinymce-seo h2, .tinymce-seo h3, .tinymce-seo h4, .tinymce-seo h5, .tinymce-seo h6 { font-family: inherit; font-size: inherit; color: inherit; padding: 10px 0; } .well h4 { color: white; margin-bottom: 1em; } .well a { font-weight: bold; color: white; text-decoration: underline; } .well p{ margin-bottom: .5em; } .well__content { text-align: left; } .category.text-center{ width: 100% }