Test Anxiety

Whether it’s the SATs or final exams, the big day is approaching and your future sways in the balance, but that gut-wrenching feeling is rearing its ugly head again. Unfortunately, test anxiety is an all too realistic condition that many of us have and continue to face and fear. Read on to find out what exactly test anxiety is, the symptoms and causes of test anxiety and techniques to reduce the condition before and during tests.

What is Test Anxiety?

Test anxiety is a feeling of distress or agitation and refers to the emotional reactions that some people have to exams. The fear of exams is not an irrational fear since exam performance can ultimately shape the course of an academic career. However, an excessive fear of exams can interfere with a person’s ability to be successful in school. It is normal to feel some anxiety before a test, but too much anxiety may be harmful to exam performance.[1,2]

Symptoms of Test Anxiety

Test anxiety may be a physical, emotional or mental response you experience, such as feeling an instant headache, butterflies in the stomach or going blank before or during an exam. Overall, there are three components of test anxiety.[1,2,3]

Physical Symptoms of Test Anxiety

Headache, tension, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, knot in the stomach, light-headedness and feeling faint can all occur. Test anxiety can lead to a panic attack, which is the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort in which individuals may feel like they are unable to breathe or having a heart attack.

Emotional/Behavioral Symptoms of Test Anxiety

Feelings of anger, fear, panic, restlessness, nervousness, continual doubt, helplessness and disappointment are common emotional responses to test anxiety.

Behavioral/Cognitive Symptoms of Test Anxiety

Difficulty concentrating or organizing thoughts, thinking negatively and comparing oneself to others, indecisive about an answer, and going blank are common symptoms of test anxiety.

Causes of Test Anxiety

Test anxiety is a learned behavior for which the causes generally fall into one of the following three categories.[2,3,4]

Lack of Preparation

Test anxiety stems from many sources, but is most commonly caused by a lack of exam preparation. Poor study habits, cramming the night before the exam, poor time management, lack of organization of the text, notes, and homework are examples of being unprepared. Not studying at all or waiting until the last minute can leave individuals feeling anxious and overwhelmed.

Fear of Failure

Test anxiety can be caused by worrying about how others are doing on the test and the consequences if you don’t do your best. While the pressure to perform can act as a motivator, it can also be devastating to individuals who tie their self-worth to the outcome of a test.

Poor Test History

Test anxiety can be caused by worrying about past test performance. Bad experiences or previous problems with test-taking can lead to a negative mindset and influence performance on future tests. Unfortunately, these feelings have a tendency to intensify if you are already on academic probation.

Some additional test anxiety causes are listed below:

  • The association of grades and personal worth.
  • A feeling of a lack of control.
  • A teacher embarrassing a student.
  • Being placed into a course above one’s ability.
  • 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.

Myths of Test Anxiety

While test anxiety is real, there are generally twelve myths surrounding the subject:[4]

  • Test anxiety is an anxiety disorder.
  • Students are born with test anxiety.
  • Test anxiety cannot be reduced.
  • Doing nothing about test anxiety will make it go away.
  • Any level of test anxiety is bad.
  • Students with test anxiety cannot learn math.
  • Very intelligent students and students taking high-level courses, such as calculus, do not have test anxiety.
  • Attending class and doing homework should reduce all test anxiety.
  • Being told to relax during a test will make you relaxed.
  • Reducing test anxiety will guarantee better grades.
  • All students who are not prepared have test anxiety.
  • Students who are well prepared will not have test anxiety.

Relaxation Techniques to Relieve Test Anxiety

Try one of the following relaxation response techniques to help control test anxiety.[4]

Tensing and Differential Relaxation 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.
  5. Repeat the procedure two or three times.
  6. Relax all your muscles except the ones that are actually used to take the test.

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. Picture the scene as if you were actually there, looking through your own eyes.
  4. Visualize this relaxing scene for one to two minutes.

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 up to the upper part of your lungs.
  4. Hold your breath for a few seconds.
  5. Exhale slowly through your mouth.
  6. Wait a few seconds and repeat the cycle.

Strategies to Reduce Test Anxiety

The mind is a powerful tool that may work either for you or against you. Test anxiety can be controlled with an attitude adjustment. Visualizing success can take you a long way. If you tell yourself you can’t succeed, then you won’t. If you tell yourself you can succeed and do well, you will. Start by preparing before, during, and after an exam. The following strategies will help in reducing test anxiety.[2,3,5]

  • Be prepared: Develop good study habits. Study at least a week or two before the exam, in smaller increments of time and over a few days (instead of pulling an “all-nighter”). Try to simulate exam conditions by working through a practice test, following the same time constraints. Your school may offer study-skills classes or other resources that can help you learn study techniques and test-taking strategies. You’ll feel more relaxed if you systematically study and practice the material that will be on a test.
  • Establish a consistent pre-test routine: Learn what works for you, and follow the same steps each time you’re getting ready to take a test. This will ease your stress level and help assure you that you’re well prepared.
  • Develop good test-taking skills: Read the directions carefully, answer questions you know first and then return to the more difficult ones. Outline essays before you begin to write.
  • Maintain a positive attitude: Remember that your self-worth should not be dependent on or defined by a test grade. Creating a system of rewards and reasonable expectations for studying can help to produce effective studying habits. There is no benefit to negative thinking.
  • Stay focused: Concentrate on the test, not other students during your exams. Try not to talk to other students about the subject material before taking an exam.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: If you feel stressed during the exam, take deep, slow breaths and consciously relax your muscles, one at a time. This can invigorate your body and will allow you to better focus on the exam.
  • Stay healthy: Just like muscles in your body, your brain needs fuel to function. Eat the day of the test so that you’re not running on empty when test time arrives. Also, drink plenty of water. Avoid sugary drinks such as soda pop, which can cause your blood sugar to peak and then drop, or caffeinated beverages such as energy drinks or coffee, which can increase anxiety. Get enough sleep, exercise and allow for personal time. If you are exhausted—physically or emotionally—it will be more difficult for you to handle stress and anxiety.
  • Visit the counseling center: Talk therapy (psychotherapy) with a psychologist or other mental health provider can help you work through feelings, thoughts and behaviors that cause or worsen anxiety. Schools are aware of the toll exams can take on students. They have offices or programs specifically dedicated to helping you and providing additional educational support so that you can be successful.

More specifically, try these techniques before, during and after an exam:[1,2,6]

Before the Test

  • Discuss test content with the instructor and classmates.
  • Develop effective study and test preparation skills.
  • Spread review of class material over several days rather than cramming.
  • Intensive review should be done a few days before test.
  • Review text, notes, and homework problems.
  • Use 3×5 cards for learning specific concepts or formulas.
  • Take a practice test under exam-like conditions.
  • Continue regular exercise program.
  • Get sufficient rest and nutrition.
  • Try to do something relaxing the hour before the test – last minute cramming will cloud your mastering of the overall concepts of the course.
  • Plan to arrive at the test location early – this will allow you to relax and to select a seat located away from doors, windows, and other distractions.
  • Avoid classmates who generate anxiety and tend to upset your stability.
  • If waiting for the test to begin causes anxiety, distract yourself by reading a magazine or newspaper.
  • Promise yourself a post-exam reward.

During the Test

  • Read the directions carefully.
  • Budget your test taking time. Avoid looking at the clock – just focus on the test.
  • Change positions to help you relax.
  • If you go blank, skip the question and go on.
  • If you’re taking an essay test and you go blank on the whole test, pick a question and start writing. It may trigger the answer in your mind.
  • Do not rush through the test. Wear a watch and check it frequently as you pace yourself. If it appears you will be unable to finish the entire test, concentrate on those portions which you can answer well.
  • Recheck your answers only if you have extra time – and only if you are not anxious.
  • Don’t panic when students start handing in their papers. There’s no reward for being the first done.
  • If allowed, get a drink, eat something or go to the bathroom.
  • If you break your pencil lead, then go sharpen it.
  • Think for a moment about the post-exam reward you promised yourself.

After the Test

  • Try not to dwell on the mistakes you might have made.
  • Don’t talk to others about what was on the exam. Asking questions such as “What did you get for #35?” will not help you or the other person. Many professors give different versions of the exam (i.e., Version A, B, C) so you might not be asking about the same question. Worrying about an answer after the test is over contributes to test anxiety.
  • Do not immediately begin studying for the next test. Forget about it. Yes! It’s all over. Go home and relax.
  • Whether you did well or not, be sure to follow through on the reward you promised yourself and enjoy it!
  • After a couple of hours, try to list some factors that you think improved your test taking and reduced your test anxiety. Even if you list only a few, it’s still a starting point that will lead to success of overcoming your test anxiety.


  1. UT Dallas Counseling Center. Self-Help: Test Anxiety. Retrieved June 30, 2013, from http://www.utdallas.edu/counseling/testanxiety/.
  2. Cal Poly. Test Anxiety. Retrieved June 29, 2013, from http://sas.calpoly.edu/asc/ssl/testanxiety.html.
  3. Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Test Anxiety. Retrieved June 30, 2013, from http://www.adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/children/test-anxiety.
  4. West Virginia University at Parkersburg. Test Anxiety. Retrieved July 1, 2013, from http://www.wvup.edu/academics/more_test_anxiety_tips.htm.
  5. Mayo Clinic. Generalized anxiety disorder. Is it possible to overcome test anxiety? Retrieved June 30, 2013, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/test-anxiety/AN02021.
  6. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Test Anxiety. Retrieved July 6, 2013, from http://www.counselingcenter.illinois.edu/?page_id=114.

By C. J. Newton, MA, Therapists.com Editor

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