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How To Deal With Test Anxiety

How To Deal With Test Anxiety

You've done the classwork and reading, you studied diligently, but when you sit down to take the test, you feel extreme anxiety and are unable to think and remember anything you studied.

Test anxiety is a form of Social Anxiety Disorder. It is related to performance anxiety.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, "Social Anxiety affects approximately 15 million American adults and is the second most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder following specific phobia. The average age of onset for social anxiety disorder is during the teenage years."

What Is Test Anxiety?

Test anxiety is a paralyzing fear you experience when you have to take a test. Most people experience some anxiety before tests, especially important tests such as final exams or college entrance exams. This kind of anxiety can actually be helpful with increasing mental processing speed and attention.

But Test Anxiety is beyond normal nervousness.

Test Anxiety is not merely a fear of tests or a fear of failing the test. It is a fear of what will happen if the test is failed. It's a fear of the interpersonal consequences of doing poorly or failing the test.

It's a fear of what the teacher, parent, or friend would say if I fail the test. They will think I'm not a good student or not intelligent.

The test taker is motivated to convey a certain impression of being smart and competent. The possible negative impression for failing a test can produce intense feelings of shame, catastrophic thoughts, and self-denigration.

The fear of failure, shame, and self judgement impair performance on tests. It interferes with concentration and recalling the information that was adequately studied all week.

What Are The Symptoms of Test Anxiety?

Physical Symptoms:

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate.

  • Sweating.

  • Trembling or shaking.

  • Shortness of breath.

  • Nausea or abdominal distress.

  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint.

  • Chills or heat sensations.

  • Numbness or tingling sensations.

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Poor concentration and focus

  • Focusing on internal symptoms of anxiety and failure rather than focusing outward on the test questions

  • Mind going "Blank"

  • Poor recall

  • Catastrophic thinking

  • Racing thoughts

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Avoidance

  • Fidgeting, restlessness

  • Looking around the room

  • Watching the clock

Emotional Symptoms:

  • Emotional symptoms of test anxiety include

  • Fear

  • Shame

  • Anger

  • Feeling helpless and hopeless

  • Feelings of self-doubt and low self-esteem

What Are The Causes Of Test Anxiety?

Fear of failure

Fear of the consequences of failing a test such as worry that people will think you are not smart, that you are a failure, and people will reject you.

Poor test preparation

Procrastinating and cramming the information overnight. Getting poor sleep and not eating appropriately before the test. Not asking questions or meeting with the teacher to clear up uncertainties about the subject matter that could be on the test.

Poor performance on past tests

Past test failure could lead to a cycle of fear. You fail one test and then fear you will fail another one. This fear causes anxiety that then interferes with your performance and causes poor test performance that could result in failing the test.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Symptoms of ADHD tend to interfere with performance on tests. Symptoms include difficulty maintaining attention, being easily distracted, and slow mental processing. Slow mental processing speed is also common in those with high levels of intelligence. Working slower on tests means you begin to run out of time, feel pressured to finish the test, and then rush through the last part of the test.

OCD and Perfectionism

High expectations for perfection can increase anxiety and cause compulsive checking and re-checking. You can't let go and just move on to the next question. This will slow down test completion and can cause panic when approaching the timeline of a timed test or when becoming one of the last people still working on the test. This can create more pressure and more anxiety.

Excessive Self-Preoccupation

People with test anxiety (and social anxiety) tend to be more preoccupied with their worries, their personal limitations, and how other people will react to them if they fail a test.

Test anxiety involves a lot of self-focused energy on one’s own thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Their thoughts are centered on themselves rather than on the test questions.

Highly self-focused, anxious people’s thoughts are usually negative and involve thoughts of other people’s disapproval of them.

As human animals, we have a strong need to belong and to be accepted by others. So we naturally care about how others think of us. But caring too much about one’s own performance can lead to excessive self-preoccupation and test anxiety.

How To Deal With Test Anxiety

1. Days Prior To The Test

Study: It comes as no surprise that studying for the test will prepare you to perform well and will improve your confidence.

Overcome procrastination: Instead of putting off studying until some vague time in the future or the night before, schedule a day and time when you will start. This is planning and not procrastinating. Then stick to the plan

Meet with the professor: Ask questions about the subject you are unsure of and understand what content will be on the test.

Get adequate sleep: Poor sleep will affect your ability to focus and concentrate. So make sure you get enough sleep the night before the test.

Eat a healthy meal: Avoid low blood sugar and fuel up your physical and mental energy with a healthy meal and a snack during the test if needed.

Monitor your “If Then” Thinking: Most of the anxiety occurs before a test and at the very beginning of the test.

This is when you can prepare your mind to reduce anxiety and nervousness by identifying your unhelpful “If Then” thinking.

If your “If Then” thinking is focused on anxiety, then you will experience anxiety. If your “If Then” thinking is focused on a desired outcome or what you want, then you will feel less anxious.

Example: “If I fail this test people will think I’m stupid and I will be embarrassed” vs. “If I pass this test I will feel proud of myself.”

If you constantly focus on the possibility of danger, then your brain and body will prepare you for that danger. That means experiencing anxiety. Begin identifying the positive outcome and experiences you want to have and deserve to have.

2. Just Before The Test

  • Arrive early to get a comfortable seat.

  • Do some deep breathing

  1. Inhale through your nose slowly by expanding from your belly first then fill your upper lungs for a count of 5.

  2. Hold your breath for a count of 2.

  3. Exhale slowly and forcefully through pursed lips for a count of 10.

  4. Repeat this a couple of times or do it for at least 1 minute before the test begins.

  • Relax your muscles

  1. From a seated position begin by tensing your legs and buttocks for a count of 5, then relax.

  2. Tense your abdomen for a count of 5, then relax for a count of 5.

  3. Tense your arms for a count of 5, then relax for a count of 5.

  4. Shrug your shoulders to your ears and tense for a count of 5, then relax for a count of 5.

Tip: Let all of the tension release and flow out or your muscles. Exhale as you release the tension and relax. You should feel the muscles become loose and limp.

3. During The Test

Lower Your Self-Preoccupation: If you have test anxiety, then you are probably be highly self-focused on how you are feeling anxious and afraid to look stupid or incompetent.

  • Focus on just starting the test

  • Feel passionate about the topic

  • Direct your focus on the test

Ignore what other people are doing: Focus on the test in front of you and don't worry about what other people are doing.

Smile: Research suggests that facial expressions and body posture influence emotions and then emotions continue to influence facial expressions and body posture, creating a self-reinforcing feedback loop that can reduce stress (Tara L. Kraft and Sarah D. Pressman, 2012).

So sit up straight, chest out, shoulders back, and smile.

Pace yourself: Monitor the time and decide how much time you can spend on each question.

4. After the Test

Be proud of yourself and give yourself a treat for completing the test even though you may have been really anxious.


You can learn to deal with test anxiety and overcome the fear of failure. It takes being mindful of your thoughts and feelings, being kind to yourself, and practice.

Attacking Panic System

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I want to help you. Please feel free to contact me confidentially by email below with any questions or if you need some advice about the content posted on The Fear Blog.

Dr Hunter's Qualifications


My name is Dr. Russell A Hunter, PsyD and I am a Licensed Clinical Psychologist recognized by the National Register of Health Service Psychologists as meeting the National Register’s stringent requirements for education and experience as a healthcare professional.


I specialize in the field of Clinical Psychology and I am an expert in the treatment of Panic Disorder, Anxiety Disorders,  ADHD, and Neurocognitive Disorders. I provide CBT and psychological testing at Northern Virginia Psychiatric Associates within the Prince William Medical Center.

I published a book titled, "Attacking Panic: The Power to Be Calm" and it is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 

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