Facebook Tweet Email Share
Print the content on this page Decrease the font size of content Increase the font size of content

Main Content

Test Anxiety

Test Anxiety

​​​​​​​What is it?

It’s normal to feel a little nervous or feel some anxiety before a test. Being a little nervous can help motivate you to study and do well. But for some people, their anxiety is so high it gets in the way and makes it hard to focus on the test and remember what they had studied. If it’s really intense, people blank out, panic, and cannot remember anything.

What does it feel like?

It’s important to know what anxiety looks like so you can tell if you have it and do something about it. Everyone who has anxiety might notice something different, because anxiety can affect our thoughts, body, and behaviours. Some people have racing thoughts or feelings of dread. They focus on the bad things that might happen. Some people might feel butterflies, a stomachache, or a headache. They might notice that their palms are sweaty, their heart is beating faster, or they have to run to the bathroom a lot. Still others might feel like they might faint or throw up. You might find yourself yelling at people; spending time alone; or not studying, because you’re afraid of making mistakes. You might feel one or many of these at the same time.

What causes it?

Anxiety is the way our body tells us that there is danger or something important to pay attention to. Anxiety is a reaction that helps you to cope with something stressful and can help protect you. When you are under stress, your body releases adrenaline, a hormone that triggers the “fight or flight” reaction. It’s the adrenaline that can make you feel miserable.

Sometimes, anxiety can happen when there is no real danger. What we tell ourselves or when we constantly think certain things can also make us anxious. For example, exams can be very stressful if you want a good grade and don’t feel like you studied enough. If you keep asking yourself, “What if I forget what I studied?” “What if I fail?” or “What if I can’t understand the questions?” you can become more anxious. Then you have even more butterflies or your headache gets worse. Wanting to get a good grade does not cause anxiety, but the negative thoughts do.

What can I do about it?

There are things you can do to make your test anxiety better.

The day before the test

  • Get a good night’s sleep. Aim for 8 to 10 hours of sleep the night before the test. A study showed that students who got 8 hours of sleep before taking a math test were almost 3 times more likely to figure out a problem than students who stayed awake studying all night (Wagner et al, 2003).
  • Remember to get enough to eat and drink. Your brain needs fuel. On the day of the test, eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water. Try not to drink caffeine such as coffee, tea, energy drinks, and cola drinks. Caffeine can make your anxiety worse.

Writing the test

  • Try some deep breathing. While you wait to get into the classroom, take a deep breath and then slowly breathe out. Repeat.
  • Watch what you think. If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts like, “I never do well on tests” or “I don’t think I studied enough”, change the way you think. Tell yourself things like, “I will do well on this test” or “I studied and I know this stuff.”
  • Chew gum if you can. Chewing can help cut down your anxiety.
  • Listen closely to the instructions. Sometimes the teacher will say something that will help answer the questions.
  • Look through the test through first. Figure out how you will pace yourself.
  • Write down formulas or definitions. If the teacher does not provide everything you need, write down the ones not provided before you start the test
  • Read the questions carefully. If you are not sure what a question means, ask the teacher to explain it.
  • Do the simple questions first. This will help you feel more confident. If you don’t know an answer to a question, skip over it and come back to it later. Spending too much time on a question cuts down the time you have to answer all the other questions.
  • Relax. While sitting in your chair, you can take a few deep breaths, wiggle your fingers and toes, or picture yourself in a quiet, peaceful place. This can be helpful if you find your mind wandering or you blank out.
  • Avoid watching the others in the room. Focus on your own test. If others finish before you, don’t let it bother you. Stick to your plan.

Managing your anxiety for tests in general

  • Find some new ways to study. Learn some study techniques and test taking strategies.
    • Organize your stuff. Avoid stuffing loose papers into your backpack.
    • Clean out your backpack on a regular basis.
    • Set up a study space just for doing homework. That way, when you sit down, your brain tells you that you are there to work.
    • Have a way to track when homework is due, like in a calendar or on a whiteboard. Write down the dates you have tests and the times you will study for them. Reviewing class materials over several days or weeks makes it easier to learn.
    • Chunk the material. Instead of studying everything, break your study sessions into chunks. For example, instead of studying all 10 chapters in 1 day, study 2 chapters at a time.
    • Take breaks when studying. Most people cannot concentrate well after an hour. Take a 5 to 10 minute break by getting up and moving around. There is 1 method that some people find helpful to focus on tasks, called Pomodoro. You can check it out to see if that helps.
  • Be active every day to help with concentration and stress. It’s not easy to do this, but get 60 minutes of physical activity every day where your heart rate goes up. You can do this in 10 minute blocks. Rollerblading, running, walking to the bus, and walking the dog are examples. Finish your activity at least 3 hours before bedtime or you might find it too hard to fall asleep.
  • Get enough sleep every night. Most teens need 8 to 10 hours of sleep every night, not just the night before the test. It not only helps with doing well in all your classes, but will help with video game skills, and learning or competing in sports.
  • Laugh. Laughing releases endorphins, the feel good hormone. So watch a funny TV show, some YouTube videos, or call up a friend. Your tense muscles will thank you.
  • Look after yourself. Pace yourself, have time with your friends, cuddle with your pet, or take a shower. Anything that will help you take time for yourself will help with how you feel.
  • Learn how to be in the moment. Mindfulness is a way to pay attention to how you feel in the present moment, exactly as you are. It’s harder to be anxious if you’re focusing on what you are sensing and feeling. Research has shown that mindfulness and cognitive behaviour therapy can help reduce stress and anxiety (Cho et al, 2016).
    • Mindfulness helps you learn to notice right now how you’re breathing, what you’re thinking, and what you’re feeling. All you have to do is pay close attention. There are no judgments about the present moment.
    • By training your mind to focus on the moment, you learn not to get lost in your worries or anxious thoughts. You control your mind, so your worries do not control you.
    • For more information go to: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
  • Learn relaxation techniques. Try breathing exercises and muscle relaxation. You can learn to do this on your own or you can do it by listening to a video or audio.

If you find you’re still struggling, talk to someone. Your family doctor, a school counsellor, or a mental health therapist can help you out.


Nature 427, 352-355; 22 January 2004. Sleep inspires insight. Ullrich Wagner, Steffen Gais, Hilde Haider, Rolf Verleger & Jan Born. doi:10.1038/nature02223

Cho H, Ryu S, Noh J, Lee J (2016). The Effectiveness of Daily Mindful Breathing Practices on Test Anxiety of Students. PLoS ONE 11(10):e0164822. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0164822​​


Current as of: January 6, 2017

Author: My Health Alberta