What Is Test Anxiety?

Taking an exam is nerve-wracking, no matter what. But if you’re dealing with test-related anxiety disorder, it can make things worse. Find out what’s going on and how to cope.

Nothing sends your stomach into your throat quite like your chemistry teacher announcing a “pop quiz.” A test? Now? Really?! That clammy, dizzying, nauseous feeling you feel sweeping over you has a name: It’s called text (or test) anxiety.

Of course, it’s totally normal to feel jitters before a test, especially if it’s a final exam or the SAT. What makes text anxiety different is that it can interfere with your ability to even study for a test because you get so stressed out just thinking about it. The American Test Anxieties Association says about 20 percent of students have high test anxiety, blocking them from studying properly for an exam and messing up their performance on test day due to major nerves.

What It Feels Like

Since tests by their very nature can produce feelings of unease, you’re probably wondering what the difference is between run-of-the-mill test stress and this specialized type of anxiety. One way to tell the difference is if you regularly perform poorly on your exams, despite preparing solidly beforehand. “If text anxiety is severe, it results in poor test performance even though the student has studied,” says Gundu A. Reddy, M.D, a psychiatrist at GABA Telepsychiatry.

You also might notice feelings like racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating, dread, and thinking negative things about yourself when you study or take the exam. You know the feeling of staring at your test and drawing a total blank even though you know your head is stuffed with facts? Yup, that’s text anxiety. Sometimes, you might even have physical symptoms related to it, like headaches, stomach aches, and shortness of breath.

Where It Comes From

Look, no one likes taking tests (or, ok, almost no one!). But some people seem to get more stressed than others. Blame it on your brain: Test anxiety occurs when your subconscious mind thinks you are in danger, says mental health counselor Matt Smith. When these “dangerous” thoughts occur, your mind begins to fire up its natural survival response—fight, flight, or freeze—explains Smith: “It’s a debilitating loop that makes it near impossible for you to focus on the task at hand or to recall the material you’re being tested on at the moment.”

It’s not that test anxiety is unwarranted, it’s just that where most people’s stress is about a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10, for people with test anxiety, it registers closer to a 9. Sometimes, that anxiety is tied to something called catastrophizing, where worry over doing poorly on a test leads people into a spiral of increasingly negative conclusions (a bad test score means you’ll fail the class, which means your GPA will plummet, which means you won’t get into a good college, which means you’ll never get a good job, etc.).

The Upside to a Tough Situation

Getting totally worked up over taking a test is obviously not ideal. But teens who have this type of anxiety also tend to study more thoroughly for an exam, because they know they’ll never survive if they just “wing it.” So even though you might not be able to produce the right answer on the spot, chances are you know the information better than many of your classmates, and once you figure out how to take the pressure off yourself, you’re going to do great on your exams.

Not to mention, some people just aren’t great test takers. While it’s always possible to improve your test skills, it’s ok if you don’t regularly nail exams like your lab partner or best friend.

How to Work with Text Anxiety

If you’ve got text anxiety, wishing it away won’t work. Take advantage of your school’s resources, like one-on-one tutorials with your teacher. Sometimes, being allowed to take your test in a private setting can help lower anxiety. You and your parents could talk with the school about stress-reducing measures such as receiving extra time on the exam, taking breaks as needed, or bringing certain comforting items into the test room with you.

Another way to make the experience less stressful is to take practice tests. A Tufts University study found that doing practice exams as part of test prep can help prevent your memory from going blank on you during the actual exam. Approach the practice tests the way you would the real one: Try and get a solid amount of sleep the night before and eat a healthy breakfast the day of the practice exam. Of course, no one aces an exam if they don’t study; get a head start by starting your prep well in advance. (True, this is not possible for pop quizzes, but usually, the dates of major tests are on the class calendar.)

Before a test, spend 10 minutes writing down anything you’re worried about. Some research shows that getting the negative thoughts out of your head and down on paper can free up your brain to better focus on the task at hand. Once you’ve written them down, try to change thoughts such as “I’m going to fail” and “I’m a bad test taker” into positive ones such as “I’m well prepared and going to do my best.”

It’s easy to say, of course, but try and remember that a test is just a test. Whatever the result, it doesn’t make you a better or worse person, and it’s not a measure of your self-worth. Every single person has experienced bad test results at some point in their life, and just about everyone feels that unnerving feeling waiting for an exam to begin. It gets easier with practice, but it will never be totally stress-free, or it wouldn’t be a test!

Special thanks to:

Matt Smith, LPCA, LCASA, NCC at Charlotte Counseling & Wellness

Gundu A. Reddy, M.D., Psychiatrist GABA Telepsychiatry

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