It is not unusual for students of all ages to feel nervous before an exam, test, or quiz. However, when that fear becomes overwhelming and affects a person’s test performance, they may have test anxiety.

Test anxiety can lead to underachievement in an academic setting. However, by learning about coping skills and finding ones that work for them, people may be able to calm their anxiety and potentially improve their academic outcomes.

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Test anxiety is not a formal diagnosis. Neither the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V) nor the World Health Organization’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases and related health problems (ICD) recognizes it as a condition.

Test anxiety is a combination of emotional reactions and physical symptoms that a person experiences before and during an examination., which relate to the fight, flight, or freeze response.

A person may experience both emotional and physical symptoms due to test anxiety.

Some common symptoms associated with test anxiety can include:

  • fear
  • anger or resentment
  • depression
  • feelings of low self-esteem
  • headaches
  • diarrhea
  • shortness of breath
  • rapid heartbeat
  • nausea
  • unhelpful self-talk
  • comparing oneself to others

Other symptoms may include emotions, thoughts, or behaviors such as:

  • procrastination
  • ruminating on past failures
  • potential panic attacks (in severe cases)
  • feeling helpless
  • feeling lightheaded
  • sweating
  • mind going blank
  • racing thoughts

A person’s symptoms may appear or present differently. A person should consider talking with their school counselor, trusted friends, or family members if they feel like their symptoms interfere with their ability to perform to the best of their ability on a test.

The causes of test anxiety can vary between people. Some identified potential causes of test anxiety include:

  • higher pressure situations, such as needing to pass a test to pass a course, fear of parental disappointment, or other pressures
  • lack of preparation for the test, such as waiting until the last minute to study or not studying enough or at all
  • general fear of failure
  • a history of underachievement in test situations
  • need for perfection (perfectionism) or high levels of self-criticism

There are several strategies that people can try to reduce test anxiety, help them manage it, and perform better. These include:

  • Making lifestyle changes: A person may find that taking steps toward better self-care can help them perform better on tests. This can include eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, and improving sleep hygiene.
  • Being prepared: If test anxiety relates to not studying enough or waiting to the last minute, a person may find that making room in their schedule and planning times to study throughout the week may help. Asking a teacher or fellow student for help creating and sticking to a study schedule can help.
  • Learning study techniques: People learn differently, and various study strategies are available. Learning about these different techniques may help people find a strategy that works for them.
  • Talking with a teacher: Teachers will often talk with their students about what topics might appear in the test and what to expect. Teachers can be a valuable resource, so talking with them and asking questions can be very helpful.

Right before the exam

It is typical to experience some anxiety on the day of a test. This is natural and can help someone stay alert.

While the above strategies can help a person reduce test anxiety in the days or weeks leading up to the test, the following tips may help with test anxiety on the day of the exam.

A person may find the following helpful:

  • getting plenty of sleep the night before the test
  • bringing water to the exam to stay hydrated
  • eating foods that can help with focus
  • avoiding excessive caffeine
  • gathering all materials necessary before leaving home
  • bringing earplugs to the exam to limit distractions
  • playing relaxing music beforehand
  • trying to reframe an anxious mindset into one of excitement

Remember that performance in one exam does not determine a person’s intelligence or self-worth.

During the examination

Once a person sits down to take the exam, they can take additional steps to help them focus and remain calm. Some steps a person can take during the actual test-taking time include:

  • Practicing calming techniques, such as deep breathing or a short meditation.
  • Making the chair and desk as comfortable as possible in a relaxed but posture-promoting position without slouching
  • Focusing the attention on the present task, for example, reading the words on a page or screen. Practice this regularly in the time leading up to the exam as part of a consistent mindfulness routine.
  • Setting and keeping realistic expectations.

Test anxiety is when a person experiences fear and physical symptoms related to taking an examination or test. It can cause a person to underachieve on an exam and lead to reduced academic performance overall.

A person can take several steps to cope with and reduce the impact of test anxiety. Steps can include lifestyle changes, such as improving diet and sleep.

During the test itself, try shifting the attention back to the task at hand when the mind drifts away to unhelpful thoughts about the test, oneself, or the outcome.