It is normal to experience anxiety or stress around tests and exams, but for some people, this anxiety can be so severe that it negatively affects their concentration¹ and ability to perform on the test.
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Test or exam anxiety is a form of performance anxiety that can be caused by a fear of failing or poor past test results. It can be debilitating and result in poor performance if not properly managed.
Our memory can be broken into three parts:
In terms of studying, you might hear the information taught to you or read it in a book. Your working memory takes the information from your sensory memory, then by focusing on and repeating the information, it can store it in your long-term memory and access it when you need it.
Test anxiety occurs when there is a reduction in working memory¹ caused by anxiety. This can happen when preparing for a test or exam, so you don’t have as good memory recall during the test or exam.
There are many different symptoms² of test anxiety, and they can vary in severity, so it can look different for everyone. You may experience some of the following physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms if you suffer from test anxiety:
Feeling faint or lightheaded
Tachycardia (rapid heartbeat or shortness of breath)
Mind blanks or freezing up when preparing for or during the test or exam
Reduced motivation or procrastination
Common causes of test and exam anxiety include:
Fear of failing
Being unprepared for the test, although even the most prepared people can also experience test anxiety
High expectations or pressure on yourself or from others
Test and exam anxiety is often caused by fear. It may be fear of failure, letting people down, or embarrassment if you don’t do well.
When we feel anxious, our fight-or-flight response is activated. This is a biological response that helps us when we are in danger, and it is responsible for the symptoms that accompany test and exam anxiety.
A part of our brain called the amygdala — also sometimes known as the “fear center” — controls the fight-or-flight response. The amygdala communicates with the frontal lobes, which are the “sensible” or “logical” parts of the brain. When the amygdala is activated by fear, it communicates this fear to the frontal lobes, and the frontal lobes process this information and assess whether the threat is real.
However, in anxiety disorders, such as severe test and exam anxiety, the amygdala “out-competes” the frontal lobes, and a fight-or-flight response occurs even though it is not actually needed for our survival. This releases adrenaline, the hormone that can cause some anxiety symptoms, such as sweating and rapid heartbeat.
Test and exam anxiety is very common. About 10-40% of students experience³ test and exam anxiety at some point, and about 25% of students have said they experience high levels of anxiety⁴ related to tests or exams.
The highest test and exam anxiety rates are among students in tertiary education.¹ 20% of those who said⁵ they experienced high test anxiety eventually dropped out of college, compared to fewer than 6% who said they experienced low test anxiety.
It is also thought that test and exam anxiety is more common for females³ than males. However, anyone can experience test anxiety.
If you experience test and exam anxiety, try some of the following tips to help decrease your stress levels.
Remember that experiencing some stress before an exam is normal and can be helpful. Try to use this stress as a motivator to study and get through the exam as best as you can.
Take a moment to think about everything you have in your life besides this class and this exam, and remind yourself that this is not a life or death scenario and, regardless of how this test goes, you will be fine. This can help to calm your fight-or-flight response.
Avoid cramming all the information you needed to learn over the semester in the last few days before your exam. At the beginning of a new semester, find some study methods that work well for you and use them to learn the material throughout the class to avoid the build-up of extra stress before tests and exams.
Your teachers are there to help you! If you are struggling with the content from class, or are feeling very anxious about the test, ask your teachers for help with the content, your study methods, or do some practice tests for them to review. This will help reassure you that you are doing well with your study or help you understand what you need to work on to get the results you want.
Like your teachers, your school counselors are also there to help you. If you are experiencing test and exam anxiety, they are often the best people to go to. They can provide you with tips for lowering your anxiety and help you access further support if you feel you need it.
Grab a notebook or journal and write down everything that comes to mind. Don’t worry about making it neat. This can help you clear your racing mind, and you may feel a weight lifted off your shoulders. To take this exercise further, look at everything you wrote down and mark which points are either not worth worrying about or are out of your control — like getting a curveball thrown at you in the exam which you could not have prepared for. With the thoughts that are left, make a plan to overcome each idea or stressor.
If you notice that you are saying lots of negative things to yourself like, “I’m not smart enough, I’m going to fail,” replace this with something positive like, “I’ve studied the best I can and will do my best in the exam.” Try to repeat this to yourself whenever you have these negative thoughts.
It is important not to be negative towards yourself before an exam. You are more likely to do better if you go in with a positive mindset. Remember that you do not need to be perfect — you just need to do your best.
While you’re studying, you might find that you keep forgetting things or feel like you have to cram every minute you possibly can to pass the test. This mindset just feeds your stress and anxiety, so try to take regular breaks — even if it is only 10-20 minutes. Go for a quick walk or sit outside for some fresh air so you can return to your studies refreshed.
Sleep is extremely important leading up to exams. Not only will you feel less anxious when you are well-rested, but you will be able to recall more information and think more clearly.
It is not worth getting only three hours of sleep the night before an exam so that you can have five extra hours of study the night before. You won’t perform as well as you would have with a full night’s sleep.
Excess caffeine intake has been linked to increased stress and anxiety.⁶ Try to limit your caffeine consumption while studying. Instead of relying on caffeine for energy, take more short breaks, get some fresh air, and eat nutritious food. If you feel like you need caffeine to keep you going, you may need more sleep so try taking a power nap. If you regularly consume caffeine, you don’t need to cut it out completely; just be aware of how much you have and avoid relying on it.
There are many different breathing techniques to reduce anxiety. Here are a couple of examples you can try, but you could ask a mental health counselor for other recommendations if these don't work for you.
The simplest breathing technique is to focus on diaphragmatic breathing.⁷ When we experience anxiety, we often take very shallow breaths that only partially fill our lungs. To practice diaphragmatic breathing, breathe in for five counts and imagine the air filling your stomach and chest. Slowly breathe out for another five counts. Continue for a few minutes until you feel calmer.
4-7-8 breathing technique
For the 4-7-8 technique,⁸ breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for seven counts, then breathe out slowly for eight counts. Once you get the hang of it, continue with this breathing pattern for a few minutes to calm your anxiety.
If you experience anxiety during exams, you could practice these breathing techniques to stop anxiety in its tracks. It is a good idea to practice these techniques in advance of the exam so you can use them when you suddenly feel anxious.
If you found a test or exam particularly stressful or you lost your study motivation, plan a reward for yourself after the exam as an incentive to keep going. Make it something you will really enjoy, like going out for dinner at your favorite restaurant or playing a video game for an hour instead of studying. Even if you have more tests coming up, rewarding yourself and taking a break after an exam will help you feel refreshed when you start again.
Essential oils can activate certain systems within the body to release molecules called endorphins, which are the feel-good hormones in the body.
Many essential oils⁹ have calming and anti-anxiety properties, such as:
Try putting essential oils in a diffuser to help calm you if you feel anxious before a test or exam. Alternatively, many different products, such as hand creams and roll-on oils, contain these essential oils. Applying these products when you are stressed may give you a sense of calm.
Other essential oils like rosemary and lemon¹⁰ help increase memory and attention in addition to reducing anxiety.
If you regularly experience severe test or exam anxiety, you should visit your doctor and discuss your options to avoid or manage anxiety in the future. Your doctor may refer you to a counselor and may also suggest anti-anxiety medications.
If your anxiety is caused by tests or exams, then it is likely you won’t need daily medication. It may be appropriate for you to take anti-anxiety medication as needed, like just before an exam. Discuss with your doctor if you find anxiety before and/or during a test is an ongoing problem and you struggle to cope.
You have more limited ways of relieving your anxiety symptoms during a test. Try the following strategies to reduce your anxiety.
If you feel stressed or your heart starts to race during the test or exam, try the breathing techniques outlined above. You can do these quietly at your desk for a minute or two to calm yourself, then continue with the test.
Although you are unlikely to be permitted to bring essential oils and a diffuser into the exam room, you may be able to bring in scented hand cream or a roll-on oil that has calming properties. Make sure to check with your teacher or exam supervisor before the day of the test to ask about the exam rules.
Grounding techniques work similarly to breathing techniques by slowing your thoughts and bringing your attention back to your body. The 5-4-3-2-1 method is a simple technique that takes only one minute. From where you are sitting, identify:
Five things you can see
Four things you can feel
Three things you can hear
Two things you can smell
One thing you can taste
Making this mental list will likely help you feel calmer so you can continue with your test.
Take a quick break
Often during exams, you are only allowed to leave if you need to use the bathroom. If the previous techniques don’t seem to be working, take a bathroom break, even if you don’t need one. Just sit or stand in the bathroom and take some deep breaths. Sometimes, just being out of the exam room can help you calm down, then head back in when you are ready.
Test and exam anxiety can cause many symptoms of anxiety, which can be different for each person, and may be difficult to manage.
If you experience severe test anxiety or have tried your best to prepare for your exams but feel like you aren’t coping with the stress, it is important to reach out to your doctor or school guidance counselor for help with getting through your tests or exams.
Test anxiety (1998)
4-7-8 Breathing technique | Gundersen Health System
Clinical aromatherapy (2020)