Causes of Test Anxiety and Academic Stress

woman taking test
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If you deal with test anxiety, you know how stressful it can be. You might feel alone, but test anxiety is common. Nervousness and anxiety are perfectly normal reactions to stress. For some people, this fear can become so intense that it interferes with their ability to perform well on a test.

What causes test anxiety? It's often a combination of factors. Poor study habits, a history of not doing well on tests, and underlying anxiety can all contribute to test anxiety.

Biological Factors

In stressful situations, such as before and during an exam, the body releases a hormone called adrenaline. This helps prepare the body to deal with what is about to happen and is commonly referred to as the "fight-or-flight" response. Essentially, this response prepares you to either stay and deal with the stress or escape the situation entirely.

This adrenaline rush can sometimes be a good thing. It helps prepare you to deal effectively with stressful situations, ensuring that you are alert and ready.

For some people, however, the symptoms of anxiety they feel can become so excessive that it makes it difficult or even impossible to focus on the test. Symptoms such as nausea, sweating, and shaking hands can actually make people feel even more nervous, especially if they become preoccupied with test anxiety symptoms.

Cognitive Factors

In addition to the underlying factors related to anxiety, there are many cognitive factors that can play a role in test anxiety. Student expectations are one such major cognitive factor. For example, if a student believes that she will perform poorly on an exam, she is far more likely to become anxious before and during a test.

Test anxiety can also become a vicious cycle. After repeatedly enduring test anxiety, students may begin to feel helpless to change their situation.

After experiencing anxiety during one exam, students may become so fearful about it happening again that they actually become even more anxious during the next exam.

How to Minimize Test Anxiety

So what exactly can you do to prevent or minimize test anxiety? Here are some strategies to help:

  • Make sure you're prepared. That means studying for the test until you feel comfortable with the material. Don't wait until the night before. If you aren't sure how to study, ask a teacher or parent for help. Being prepared will boost your confidence, which will lessen your test anxiety.
  • Confront the negative thoughts. If you start to have anxious or defeated thoughts, such as "I'm not good enough," "I didn't study hard enough," or "I can't do this," push those thoughts away and replace them with positive thoughts. "I can do this," "I know the material," and "I studied hard," can go far in helping to manage your stress level when taking a test.
  • Get enough sleep. A good night's sleep will help your concentration and memory.
  • Take deep breaths. If you start to feel anxious while you're taking your test, breathe deeply, in through your nose and out through your mouth. Work through each question or problem one at a time, taking a deep breath in between each one as needed. Making sure you are giving your lungs plenty of oxygen can help your focus and sense of calm.
  • Avoid the perfectionist trap. Don't expect to be perfect. We all make mistakes and that's okay. Knowing you've done your best and worked hard is really all that matters, not perfection.
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  1. Kids Health. Test Anxiety. Updated July 2018.