Test Anxiety

Young men's version of this guide
girl balancing books on head

You’re about to take your mid-term and suddenly you can’t remember what you studied. Your hands feel sweaty and your stomach begins to hurt. Do you have a bad case of the jitters, or could you have test anxiety? Feeling stressed out or nervous before a test is normal. In fact, some stress helps to motivate people to study, but if you get so stressed out that you’re unable to stay focused enough to answer test questions, it can be a problem.

What is test anxiety?

Test anxiety is a type of “performance anxiety.” Performance anxiety is the feeling of tension or nervousness when you feel pressured to do well on a task. Testing anxiety is when that feeling happens before or during a test. People with test anxiety may feel so anxious that they have physical symptoms such as: nausea (feeling sick to your stomach), a headache, and feeling like their heart is pounding, and/or sweating a lot. They may also feel like their mind is going blank and have trouble focusing on the test and remembering what they studied. Most people feel nervous before a test, but performance anxiety about a test is so challenging it becomes hard to complete the test at all.

Test anxiety is not the same thing as flunking a test because you didn’t study or because your mind was on something else, such as a breakup with your partner. Most people with test anxiety feel the same extreme nervousness about tests no matter the course subject – it’s not so much the material that is overwhelming, rather it’s the idea of having to perform on the spot. This can create a problem with grades, and with someone’s self-esteem and confidence.

What causes test anxiety?

Test anxiety is similar to other kinds of anxiety. When you’re under stress, your brain and mind go into “fight or flight” mode to help keep you safe. If you’re being chased by a bear or in a house-fire, this anxiety response helps your body be prepared to run away and keep you safe. Some people experience the same anxiety response when they’re not in physical danger, such as when they are speaking in front of the class or taking a test.

Anxiety is worsened when you focus on all of the bad things that could happen – such as forgetting how to answer questions, not knowing the answers, failing, etc. The ADAA–Anxiety and Depression Association of America–lists the following factors as likely causes of test anxiety:

  1. Fear of failure
  2. Lack of preparation
  3. Poor test history

Who is at risk for getting test anxiety?

Anyone at any age can get test anxiety. However, people who tend to worry a lot and are very focused getting “perfect” grades are more likely to experience test anxiety. In addition, teenagers whose parents are very focused on perfect grades may feel test anxiety and worry about disappointing others.

How can I prevent getting test anxiety?

A little nervousness before a big test is normal; therefore, it will be hard to get rid of test anxiety completely. There are many strategies that can help reduce test anxiety so it doesn’t make it hard to show you what you know!

Channel your stress on to preparing for the test, instead of letting the stress get out of control and make it hard to study at all. Tips for preparing for a test are listed below.

Find ways to relax. Breathing exercises can be helpful before a test. You can also practice tensing and relaxing your muscles, like your toes or thighs, and your classmates won’t even notice. Another way to relax and to stop negative thinking is to focus on the present moment. You can do this by identifying something you can see, feel, hear, smell, and taste.

Change the way you think. Notice when you’re being negative or harsh to yourself, and replace those thoughts with positive messages. Instead of thinking “I’m never going to college if I fail this test,” think “I’m prepared for this test, and I can ask my teacher for help if I need it.”

Talk to your teacher, parent, and/or a guidance counselor about getting support for your test anxiety. Working with a counselor or therapist can be helpful in managing performance anxiety. As you continue to work on skills to manage your anxiety, a counselor may be able to work with your teachers to help you have extra time on tests or to take the test in a more quiet space.

Strategies for Test Preparation:

  • Don’t cram! If you know a week ahead of time, set aside time each day to help you prepare.
  • Get organized. This will help you feel in control.
  • Choose a study space that is calm and quiet. Studying in the same or similar space can help you recall test material you’ve already studied. Go to review sessions and/or meet with your teacher/professor to find out what you should focus on for the test. Finding out what information is not important to remember is also helpful.
  • You don’t have to study the same way as your friends. Find a study method that works for you! It could be re-writing the material by hand or using flash cards with a buddy, everyone’s different.
  • Get plenty of sleep (9 hours every night) especially before a test!
  • Eat a healthy breakfast that includes protein. Be sure to pack a nutritious snack and lunch or plan on buying lunch at school. Remember, food gives your brain energy to think.
If you feel like your test taking methods aren’t working, talk with your teacher/professor or counselor and ask for suggestions.