What Are the Symptoms of Test Anxiety?

Causes and Ways to Overcome

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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.

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 even experiencing panic attacks before or during exams.

  • 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 about their symptoms and poor test performance.

Causes of Test Anxiety

There are several potential causes of test anxiety, including:

  • A history of poor testing outcomes. If you've 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.

Ways to Help Overcome Test Anxiety

Fortunately, there are steps that students can take to alleviate these unpleasant and oftentimes harmful symptoms. Some ways to help overcome test anxiety include:

  • Relaxation techniques like deep breathing can help you to relax before and during a test.
  • Make sure you get enough sleep and eat healthy meals.
  • Work on developing good study habits and make sure you are well-prepared for tests. One good way to do this is to reward yourself for goals you set as you study.
  • Don't connect your self-worth to the test's outcome. It's one test and your worthwhileness as a person is not dependent on grades.
  • Focus on the test and try not to get distracted.
  • Stay positive.
  • If you need extra support, make an appointment with your school counselor.


"Test Anxiety." Anxiety and Depression Association of America (2016).

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