What Is Test Anxiety?

Test anxiety can make it difficult to do well on exams

Stressed out student taking exam
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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.

What does it feel like to experience test anxiety? You paid attention in class, took detailed notes, read every chapter, and even attended extra study sessions after class, so you should do great on that big exam, right? When the test is presented, however, you find yourself so nervous that you blank out the answers to even the easiest questions. If this experience sounds familiar, then you might be suffering from test anxiety.

What Is Text Anxiety?

Test anxiety is a psychological condition in which people experience extreme distress and anxiety in testing situations. While many people experience some degree of stress and anxiety before and during exams, test anxiety can actually impair learning and hurt test performance.

Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety. In situations where the pressure is on and a good performance counts, people can become so anxious that they are actually unable to do their best.

Other examples of performance anxiety:

  • A high school basketball player becomes very anxious before a big game. During the game, he is so overwhelmed by this stress that he starts missing even easy shots.
  • A violin student becomes extremely nervous before a recital. During the performance, she messes up on several key passages and flubs her solo. 
  • During a work presentation, a businessman freezes up and forgets the information he was going to present to his co-workers and manager.

While people have the skills and knowledge to do very well in these situations, their excessive anxiety impairs their performance.

The severity of test anxiety can vary considerably from one person to another. Some people might feel like they have "butterflies" in their stomach and while others might find it difficult to concentrate on the exam.

A little bit of nervousness can actually be helpful, making you feel mentally alert and ready to tackle the challenges presented in an exam. The Yerkes-Dodson law suggests that there is a link between arousal levels and performance. Essentially, increased arousal levels can help you do better on exams, but only up to a certain point. Once these stress levels cross that line, the excessive anxiety you might be experiencing can actually interfere with test performance.

Excessive fear can make it difficult to concentrate and you might struggle to recall things that you have studied. You might feel like all the information you spent some much time reviewing suddenly seems inaccessible in your mind. You blank out the answers to questions to which you know you know the answers. This inability to concentrate and recall information then contributes to even more anxiety and stress, which only makes it that much harder to focus your attention on the test. 

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, performing dismally on tests or experiencing panic attacks before or during exams.​

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, symptoms of test anxiety can be physical, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional. Common physical symptoms include things such as headaches, diarrhea, rapid breathing, and light-headedness.

Others might experience a racing heartbeat and a sense of shakiness. In the most severe cases, people can feel nauseous and short of breath or might even experience a full-blown panic attack.

Test anxiety can also result in behavioral and cognitive symptoms such as negative thinking and difficulty concentrating. People experiencing test anxiety might compare themselves to other students and mistakenly believe that they are the only person suffering from such terrible anxiety. Other symptoms of test anxiety can involve emotions such as a sense of helplessness, fear, anger, and disappointment.

Physical symptoms of test anxiety include sweating, shaking, rapid heartbeat, dry mouth, fainting, and 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.

Cognitive and behavioral symptoms can include fidgeting or outright avoidance of testing situations. 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. 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.

Emotional symptoms of test anxiety can include depression, low self-esteem, anger, and a feeling of hopelessness. Students often feel helpless to change their situation or belittle and berate themselves for their symptoms and poor test performance.

Fortunately, there are steps that students can take to alleviate these unpleasant and oftentimes harmful symptoms. By learning more about the possible causes of their test anxiety, students can begin to look for helpful solutions.

Causes of Test Anxiety

While test anxiety can be very stressful for students who suffer from it, many people do not realize that is actually quite common. Nervousness and anxiety are perfectly normal reactions to stress. For some people, however, this fear can become so intense that it actually interferes with their ability to perform well.

So what causes test anxiety? For many students, it can be a combination of things. Poor study habits, poor past test performance and an underlying anxiety problem can all contribute to test anxiety.

A few potential causes of test anxiety include:

  • A history of poor testing outcomes. If you have done poorly on tests before, either because you didn't study well enough or because you were so anxious, you couldn't remember the answers, this can cause even more anxiety and a negative attitude every time you have to take another test.
  • Being unprepared. If you didn't study or didn't study well enough, this can add to your feeling of anxiety.
  • Being afraid of failure. If you connect your sense of self-worth to your test scores, the pressure you put on yourself can cause severe test anxiety.

Biological Causes of Test Anxiety

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. In a lot of cases, this adrenaline rush is actually 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 these test anxiety symptoms.

Mental Causes of Test Anxiety

In addition to the underlying biological causes of anxiety, there are many mental factors that can play a role in this condition. Student expectations are one major mental 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 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. After repeatedly enduring test anxiety, students may begin to feel that they have no power to change the situation.

Overcoming 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 early until you feel comfortable with the material. Don't wait until the night before. If you aren't sure how to study, ask your teacher or parent for help. Being prepared will boost your confidence, which will lessen your test anxiety.
  • Banish 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.

Therapy and Medications Can Also Help

  • If you need extra support, make an appointment with your school counselor or primary care physician.
  • Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your physician may also recommend cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), anti-anxiety medications, or a combination of both. CBT focuses on helping people change both the behaviors and underlying thoughts that contribute to the unwanted behaviors or feelings.

A Word From Verywell

Test anxiety can be unpleasant and stressful, but it is also treatable. If you believe that test anxiety is interfering with your ability to perform well, try utilizing some self-help strategies designed to help you manage and lower your anxiety levels. If you are still struggling to manage your test anxiety, talk to your counselor, another mental health practitioner, or your primary care physician for more advice about treatments that are available.

View Article Sources
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  • Spielberger, CD, Anton, WD, & Bedell, J. "The nature and treatment of test anxiety." In M. Zuckerman & CD. Spielberger (Eds.), Emotions and Anxiety: New Concepts, Methods, and Applications. London: Psychology Press; 2015.