What is Test Anxiety? | Signs, Symptoms and Causes of it

By Prapoorna M

Last Updated: November 26, 2021

It is 9:25 am on Monday morning and all the students have assembled in the classroom to take the examination. Priya is quickly reviewing her preparation for the last few days and especially what she accomplished the previous day. She had paid attention in class, took detailed notes, read every chapter and even attended extra study sessions after class. She feels confident and is ready to take the examination, She notices that her best friend Pooja sitting diagonally opposite to her appears worried and is biting her nails.

Priya suddenly gets the feeling that she is becoming nervous and when the question paper if given, her mind goes completely blank. She calms down herself by closing her eyes and takes a deep breath, She recalls what her school counselor told her “You have prepared well and will overcome the anxiety”. She starts feeling good and slowly opens her eyes and looks at the question paper again. Priya has experienced a bout of test anxiety but was able to overcome it successfully.
Anxiety is nothing our body’s natural response to danger. Whenever we feel threatened or being under pressure or may be facing a stressful situation, our body senses an alarming feel that triggers anxiety. Test anxiety is a psychological condition in which the test taker experiences severe distress and anxiety when thinking about or taking an exam.

Every student must have experienced this test anxiety. To be frank, most of the students tend to have that anxiety before exam, so as to perform well. It is a common sight to find students anxious before an important exam.

Myths of Test anxiety

There are a number of myths about anxiety which is more or less a common experience to every student. Let’s have a look at the myths and the realities of Anxiety.


  • Students are born with test anxiety; No. Test Anxiety is learned
  • Test anxiety can’t be reduced; It can be reduced with practice
  • Don’t do anything. It goes away; It won’t. It gets accumulated
  • Any level of test anxiety is bad; Some amount of test anxiety is good
  • Students with test anxiety can’t learn math; Anxiety about any subject can be reduced
  • Very intelligent students and high-level course learning students don’t experience test anxiety; They do have test anxiety and know how to reduce it too
  • Anxiety gets reduced when students attend classes regularly and do homework; They will help reduce it, but the students must learn to use psychological techniques to reduce the anxiety.
  • If someone tells you to relax during a test, it feels relaxed; Yes. But it helps when that relaxation is practiced.
  • Reducing the test anxiety will guarantee better results; Undoubtedly reducing test anxiety is good but test preparation is essential.
  • All students who haven’t prepared well will have test anxiety; Not true. They are prepared for poor performance
  • Students who prepared well, won’t have test anxiety; They will have some anxiety, but it is under control
A student having Exam anxiety
A student having Exam anxiety

Signs and symptoms of Test anxiety

Test anxiety signs and symptoms can be identified in two ways. Firstly,
test anxiety can occur before, during and after the examination.
Secondly, test anxiety can be understood by examining the changes
that take place at the physical, emotional and behavior levels.


Test anxiety before, during and after the examination. Anxiety before the examination can take the form of worrying about days in advance, irritability, headaches and changes in sleep and appetite. Anxiety during the examination is experienced as the mind going blank, sweating, confusion or panic. The anxiety that comes after the examination includes feelings of guilt, anger, finding careless mistakes and depression.


Test anxiety at the physical, emotional and behavioral levels Each person will experience a different collection of signs and symptoms of test anxiety with differing degrees of intensity. However, they fall into a few categories.

Physical symptoms

Headache, loss of sleep, appetite, sometimes hair fall, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, and extreme body temperature changes, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, feeling faint and/or dry mouth, muscle tension, cramps can all occur. A student can experience some or all of them. Test anxiety can also lead to a panic attack, which is the sudden onset of intense fear or discomfort in which individuals may feel like they are unable to breathe or having a heart attack.

Emotional symptoms

Excessive feelings of anger, fear, feelings of helplessness, depression, low self-esteem, uncontrollable crying or laughing, and disappointment are common emotional responses to test anxiety.

Behavioral /Cognitive symptoms

Fidgeting, pacing, substance abuse, avoidance, thinking negatively, racing thoughts, ‘going blank’, trouble remembering information that was understood and thoroughly studied, trouble concentrating and analyzing problems, difficulty concentrating, negative self-talk, feelings of panic, comparing with others, difficulty in organizing thoughts are common symptoms of test anxiety.

Causes of Test Anxiety

Several causes of test anxiety are related to internal as well as external aspects of the student and why some children might be more predisposed to test anxiety.
Self-Image: Students may experience test anxiety if they have negative self-images and lack confidence in their abilities or if they dislike the subject, course, and/or teacher. Students often develop negative self-images when they experience failures on exams, especially if they feel they didn’t receive the grade they deserved. This may turn into heightened anxiety on future exams.

Learning issues: Test anxiety often goes hand-in-hand with learning issues. The children who have ADHD or a learning disability often tend to feel anxious about school, and when it’s time to take a test that sense can be heightened.
Time: When a student has a limited amount of time to take a test and knows that he processes things slowly, he feels anxious. Temperament: Children with anxious temperament, are always worried that they won’t do well, for whatever reason, and worry about making mistakes are prone to more anxiety.
Stereotypes: Children who believe that they won’t do as well in a particular subject, like girls influenced by the stereotype that boys are better at math may also be more prone to test anxiety in that subject.
Individual: Test anxiety is a learned behavior. The habit of associating the grades with their personal worth often leads to test anxiety in students. When there occurs a feeling of lack of control, they do experience anxiety. Being placed into course above child’s ability can cause test anxiety.

People: Test anxiety can be caused by a teacher humiliating a student. The fear of getting alienated from parents, family, and friends due to poor grades, will also result in test anxiety.


Distraction: Undergoing stressful situations, makes a person to have a dual-task situation, where that person’s attention is divided between the task at hand and unhelpful thoughts about the situation and possible negative consequences of poor performance. This results in test anxiety.
Working memory: Working memory is a system that actively holds several pieces of relevant information in the mind while inhibiting irrelevant information. It has a limited capacity, and the addition of anxiety reduces the resources available to focus on relevant information. Many of the skills performed in the classroom require heavy demands on working memory. There is monitoring pressure and outcome pressure, in which an individual’s performance is influenced by the consequences of the testing results. In general, people with higher working memory capacity do better on academic tasks, but this change when people are under acute pressure/anxious.

A student trying to remember something
A student trying to remember something

Few more causes:

Attention Vs. emotional stimuli: Attention is an important part of working memory. Emotional stimuli can divert an individual to a greater degree than non-emotional stimuli, especially when there’s a need for an individual to be more attentive to a specified task. Emotional stimuli will often dominate a person’s thoughts, and any attempt to suppress them will require additional working memory resources. When working memory divides resources between the aversive cognitions and the task-relevant material, then the person’s ability to use the relevant information on a test will suffer.

Processing and performance: Anxiety largely impairs processing efficiency rather than performance effectiveness. Performance effectiveness refers to the quality of performance whereas processing efficiency refers to the amount of resources used to attain an effective performance. For example, students having high test anxiety have to allocate more resources to the task at hand, than the students with non-test anxiety for achieving the same results.
Fear of failure: The motivating performance pressure can turn into a devastator when the individuals try to tie their self-worth to the outcome of a test.
Lack of preparation: It is a well known fact that waiting until the last minute or not studying at all will obviously leave the individuals feeling anxious and overwhelmed.
Bad test history: In most cases, students who consider the previous problems or bad experiences with test-taking personally, end up in a negative mindset which influences their performance on the future tests.
Poor study skills: Organization and preparation are key weapons in your fight against test anxiety. Poor study skills can greatly contribute to exam stress.

Taking expert help to come out of test anxiety yields better results. Parents can contribute to test anxiety reduction in students with simple tips.

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