Signs and Symptoms of Test Anxiety

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Test anxiety is a form of performance anxiety that is characterized by fear, worry, tension, and even feelings of physical illness in the face of taking an exam. Many people experience stress or anxiety before an exam. In fact, a little nervousness can actually help you perform your best. However, when this distress becomes so excessive that it actually interferes with performance on an exam, it is known as test anxiety.

Symptoms of Test Anxiety

The symptoms of test anxiety can vary considerably and range from mild to severe. Some students experience only mild symptoms of test anxiety and are still able to do fairly well on exams. Other students are nearly incapacitated by their anxiety, which may lead to poor test performance or even panic attacks before or during exams.​

Physical Symptoms of test anxiety include:

  • Sweating
  • Shaking
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dry mouth
  • Fainting
  • Nausea

Milder cases of test anxiety can cause a sense of "butterflies" in the stomach, while more severe cases can actually cause students to become physically ill. People may even vomit or experience diarrhea before a test.

Emotional symptoms of test anxiety can include:

  • Depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Anger
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Distress
  • Feelings of inadequacy

Students often feel helpless to change their situation or belittle and berate themselves for their symptoms and poor test performance.

Cognitive and behavioral symptoms can include:

  • Fidgeting
  • Outright avoidance of testing situations
  • Forgetfulness
  • Self-doubt
  • Negative self-talk

In some cases, test anxiety can become so severe that students will drop out of school in order to avoid the source of their fear. Substance abuse can also occur since many students attempt to self-treat their anxiety by taking downers such as prescription medications and alcohol.

Test anxiety makes it very difficult to concentrate during an exam. Many people with test anxiety report blanking out on answers to the test even though they thoroughly studied the information and were sure that they knew the answers to the questions. Negative self-talk, trouble concentrating on the test and racing thoughts are also common cognitive symptoms of test anxiety.

How Prevalent Is Test Anxiety?

Anxiety disorders tend to be quite common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 19.1 % of U.S. adult had some type of anxiety disorder within the past year. An estimated 31.1% of all U.S. adults will experience at least one anxiety disorder at some point during their lives. One study found that anywhere from 10% to 40% of school-age students experience test anxiety. 

Causes of Test Anxiety

There are a number of different factors that may lead students to experience anxiety in the face of tests. Research has shown that parents who place a great deal of academic pressure on their children may contribute to test anxiety. Students who feel this parental pressure are more likely to experience physical symptoms of anxiety during tests as well as greater worry before and during exams.

Some other potential causes of test anxiety include:

  • Poor past test performance. Students who have done poorly on previous tests may be more likely to feel anxious in the future.
  • Lack of preparation. Procrastination or failing to study for an exam can increase anxiety levels during a test.
  • Fear of failure. Students who connect their sense of self-worth to their test scores experience a great deal of pressure to perform well. This high-pressure to perform well can then lead to greater anxiety.

Test anxiety can also feed upon itself. Once a student has experienced some level of test anxiety for whatever reason, whether it was due to poor preparation or high external pressure from teachers or parents, they are more likely to experience similar anxiety again in the future. Students may become so fearful of experiencing anxiety symptoms that they become even more fearful of testing situations.

One study found that students with learning disabilities are more likely to experience this type of anxiety.

Treatments

Treatment for test anxiety often involves self-help and therapeutic strategies for managing stress levels before and during an exam. Students are often assisted with study techniques and test-taking skills to ensure that they have the preparation and abilities they need to succeed on tests. Helping students to build confidence in their test-taking ability can also be helpful.

Students who have severe anxiety or who experience panic attacks may also be prescribed anti-anxiety medications to help control these symptoms. Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) are psychotherapy approaches that may also be helpful in treating the symptoms of test anxiety.

Ways to Help Overcome Test Anxiety

Fortunately, there are steps that students can take to alleviate these unpleasant and oftentimes harmful symptoms.

Some ways to help overcome test anxiety include:

  • Practice stress management strategies. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing can help you to relax before and during a test.
  • Make lifestyle modifications. Self-care habits such as getting enough sleep and eating healthy meals can be helpful for managing symptoms of anxiety
  • Establish good habits. Work on developing good study habits and make sure you are well-prepared for tests. One good way to do this is to reward yourself for the goals you set as you study.
  • Learn to accept mistakes. Don't connect your self-worth to the test's outcome. It's one test and your worthwhileness as a person is not dependent on grades.
  • Minimize distractions. Focus on the test and try not to get distracted by interfering thoughts.

While students often try to deal with test anxiety on their own, there are resources available that can help. If you or your child need extra support, make an appointment with a school counselor, doctor, or mental health professional.

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