Test Anxiety

The Psychology Behind Exam Stress

Inhale and ExhaleTest anxiety, also known as exam stress or performance anxiety, is a common experience that many students face when preparing for and taking tests or exams. It’s characterized by feelings of worry, nervousness, and fear that can interfere with concentration, memory recall, and overall performance. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the psychology behind test anxiety and explore the factors that contribute to its development.

Cognitive Factors

Test anxiety often stems from negative thoughts and beliefs about one’s abilities and the consequences of failure. Individuals experiencing test anxiety may engage in catastrophic thinking, imagining the worst-case scenarios if they perform poorly on the exam. These cognitive distortions can heighten anxiety levels and impair cognitive functioning, making it difficult to focus and recall information during the test.

Emotional Factors

Emotions play a significant role in test anxiety, with fear, worry, and self-doubt being common emotional experiences. Fear of failure, embarrassment, or disappointing others can trigger intense emotional reactions, leading to heightened stress and anxiety. Individuals may also experience physiological symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, and trembling, which further exacerbate emotional distress.

Situational Factors

The testing environment and the perceived importance of the exam can influence the intensity of test anxiety. Factors such as time pressure, unfamiliar surroundings, and the presence of others can contribute to feelings of stress and anxiety. Additionally, high-stakes exams, such as standardized tests or college entrance exams, may elicit greater levels of anxiety due to the perceived consequences of performance outcomes.

Past Experiences

Previous experiences with testing, academic performance, or social comparison can shape individuals’ expectations and beliefs about their ability to succeed on exams. Negative experiences, such as past failures or criticism from teachers or peers, can increase feelings of self-doubt and undermine confidence in one’s abilities. These past experiences may serve as triggers for test anxiety in future testing situations.


Perfectionistic tendencies, characterized by excessively high standards and a fear of making mistakes, are often associated with test anxiety. Individuals who strive for perfection may experience heightened anxiety when faced with the prospect of falling short of their own or others’ expectations. The fear of not meeting perceived standards of excellence can intensify stress and undermine performance.

Coping Strategies

Individuals may employ various coping strategies to manage test anxiety, ranging from adaptive strategies such as relaxation techniques, positive self-talk, and time management skills to maladaptive strategies such as avoidance, procrastination, and substance use. While adaptive coping strategies can help reduce anxiety and improve performance, maladaptive coping strategies may provide temporary relief but ultimately exacerbate test anxiety in the long run.

Test Anxiety (the following information is loosely based on that of John Zbornik and Ellen Freedman)

Two major components seem to comprise test anxiety.

The cognitive aspect centers on worry which may include poor self-image, feelings of failure, or catastrophic thoughts.

The emotional aspects center on somatic disturbances such as stomach upset and headaches. Symptoms of nervousness such as shaking hands, sweating palms, dry mouth, shallow breathing, heart palpitations, and elevated blood pressure may also be present.

Behavioral responses may vary from focusing on one item, “checking out,” hyper sensitivity to noise or other environmental stimuli, and “freezing up.”

Assessing test anxiety should include, but not be limited to, getting a history from the student and parents, teachers, etc. and using rating scales.

Test Anxiety Assessment (based somewhat on John Zbornik’s work)

  1. What kinds of things happen in your body while you are taking a test?
  2. How is your breathing?
  3. How does your stomach feel?
  4. How does your head feel?
  5. Are you able to study the night before a test?
  6. How nervous do you feel when starting at test?
  7. Does the level of nervousness change and you progress through the test? How?
  8. Does your mind ever just go blank before or during a test?
  9. Even when you have studied a lot, do you still get nervous?
  10. Do you sometimes get stuck on a question or problem and can’t go on?
  11. Do you have trouble finishing tests?
  12. Does the subject matter of the test make a difference in your feelings while you are taking the test?
  13. What kind of things do you think about when you are taking a test?
  14. What thoughts go through your mind?

After a student has answered questions that are consistent with test anxiety, the next step is to help the student try to deal with the response.

[Note: The above questionnaire, with room for responses, can be printed here.

Suggestions to help students cope with math test anxiety

Teach students how to study for math tests by making note cards, working problems from classwork, homework, tests and quizzes.

Help students construct practice exams or practice tests that are available in books or through teachers.

Use other means to help the student “desensitize” by practicing test-like conditions.

Give positive reinforcement for good work and gentle correction for mistakes.

Teach students how to work backwards and/or eliminate answers on multiple-choice tests.

Help students practice doing the questions or problems in three waves: Easy, medium, and hard so they can maximize the time allowed.

Teach students about the physiology of test anxiety and to not be distracted by body responses.

Instruct students to eat meals with both carbohydrates and protein prior to the test.

Instruct students to try to exercise just enough to become a little bit tired prior to entering the testing situation (It lessens the affect of adrenaline caused by anxiety).

Help the students learn to have productive self-talk (rather than destructive self-talk).

“My job is to do the best I can on this test today.”

Help students increase their ability to focus on the task of taking the test and every time attention wanders to refocus.

About The Author

Virginia W. Strawderman, Ph.D. did her dissertation on Math Anxiety. She has developed and produced the MathHELPS series of games and activities for young children.