Most people get nervous before they take an important test, but some people experience an intense fear or worry known as test anxiety. Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety, because there is pressure to do well in a specific situation. People can experience test anxiety for a number of reasons. They may fear failure and the uncertainty of the future if they do poorly on an examination. They may have procrastinated due to this fear and feel overwhelmed by cramming for a test at the last minute. They may also have experienced poor test performance in the past and worry about the incident repeating.1

All of this stress over the test produces the body’s “fight or flight” response. Your body releases adrenaline, and the energy used to do good thinking gets diverted into being on high alert. Our brains prepare for the worst, and it becomes all too difficult to imagine doing well and to answer questions.

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Symptoms of Test Anxiety

Symptoms of test anxiety can be observed in your thoughts, emotions, and body. If you’ve experienced these symptoms while taking an exam, you may suffer from test anxiety.2

Cognitive Symptoms – racing thoughts, self-comparison to others, difficulty concentrating, blanking out, negative thoughts of past performances

Emotional Symptoms – fear, anger, feeling helpless, guilt, shame, disappointment

Physical Symptoms – nausea, racing heart, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, headache, dizziness, dry mouth, tense muscles

Sometimes people experiencing intense test anxiety are at increased risk of having a panic attack. If you’ve experienced panic attacks before and are worried about having one during an upcoming test, consider working with a counselor to help you learn to better manage anxiety. If you experience intense panic the day of a test, you can also ask a test examiner if there is an option to have the test canceled. Some standardized examinations allow you to cancel your score, but not all do.

Action Steps

Ask for Help – Never hesitate to ask for help in managing test anxiety. Teachers, professors, and test consultants can provide valuable information to help you feel prepared. If you have a learning disability, don’t hesitate to ask for the appropriate test accommodations. Counselors and other mental health professionals can help you challenge negative thinking as you prepare and for the day of the test. The less isolated you feel in this challenge, the more likely you are to overcome it.

Prepare and Practice – Many people don’t begin to prepare for a test in adequate time because the fear of failure is overwhelming to them. Give yourself permission to make mistakes as you prepare for the exam. As the date gets closer, consider organizing a practice test to simulate what you should expect on the test day.

Ask Friends for Stories –Most people have a story about doing poorly on an exam or how they worked to do better. Hearing stories of other people’s resilience can help provide motivation but also help you challenge catastrophic thinking and remember that people are more than their test scores.

Challenge Negative Thoughts – People with test anxiety tend to assume the worst about an upcoming exam, so take some time to examine and challenge those thoughts. Watch out for thoughts with words like “always” and “never,” because they are not usually accurate. For example, if the thought is, “I always fail on tests,” then consider replacing it with a thought like, “I’ve taken solid steps towards performing well this time around.”

Practice Self-Care – Test anxiety is likely to be lower if your overall anxiety is lower. Getting adequate sleep, eating healthy, and exercising are all helpful strategies for managing stress. Consider how building a personal wellness plan leading up to a test date can help you feel more in control of anxiety. Discipline builds discipline, so healthy habits are likely to build motivation to help you prepare for an exam.

Managing test anxiety starts one day at a time. If you’re taking care of yourself, thinking positively, and allowing yourself to make mistakes along the way, then you are likely to feel more in control when you show up to take a test. Consider today how you can gain back control of your future and perform well on an upcoming test.

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Last Updated: Apr 11, 2019