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Key Takeaways:

  • Test anxiety is both an emotional and physical reaction to stress related to taking a test.
  • This type of anxiety has behavioral, physical, and emotional symptoms.
  • Strategies such as reviewing test-taking basics and positive self-talk can reduce test anxiety.

Tests can be very effective at helping teens learn, especially if they are designed well. They can help one understand what they do or don’t know, enhancing the learning process.

Unfortunately, tests can also be one of the biggest sources of anxiety for teenagers. It can even affect older students, such as those in medical school [*], or those taking up other further studies. The symptoms may be all too familiar to you: on test day, you may feel tense and shaky. Your stomach might be in knots and feel a lot of aching.

Students can get so stressed about test-taking that they feel physical, psychological, and emotional symptoms manifest as test anxiety. This leads to more mistakes on tests, confusion, inability to focus, and most of all, a reduced sense of confidence.

Fortunately, there are ways to make it easier for children experiencing this condition. Here’s how to help kids with test anxiety.

What is Test Anxiety?

Test anxiety is a real psychological condition in which an individual experiences extreme stress and anxiety during testing situations. It is a type of performance anxiety, which leads to excessive fear or worry relating to accomplishing something specific — in this case, a test.

Test anxiety is fairly common in teenagers. However, while most people do have some degree of stress and anxiety before and during tests, test anxiety can impair learning and negatively affect test performance.

Causes of Test Anxiety

What exactly causes test anxiety? For many students, it is a combination of things. Some potential causes of test anxiety include:

  • Unpreparedness. If a student hasn’t studied enough and feels ill-prepared to take the test, they may feel a great level of test anxiety.
  • Fear of failure. Some teens connect their sense of self-worth to test scores, so the pressure of doing well can cause severe test anxiety.
  • Poor testing history. If students have performed poorly on tests in the past, then this can cause anxiety and a negative attitude every time they have to take another test.
  • Expectations. Teen students may sometimes walk into a test with the belief that they will perform poorly, which can cause more anxiety before and during the actual test.
  • Fight or flight response. The fight or flight response can be triggered by the release of adrenaline in anticipation of the stress a student will experience during a test. While this is typically a good thing, the symptoms of anxiety may be excessive and hinder test performance.

Symptoms of Test Anxiety

There are several symptoms that you can look out for if you are worried that your teen has test anxiety.

Physical symptoms may include the following:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Excessive sweating
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Lightheadedness
  • Panic attacks

Emotional symptoms might look like:

  • Feeling stressed
  • Fearfulness
  • Helplessness
  • Disappointment
  • Racing thoughts
  • Mind going blank

Test anxiety can also show up through the following behaviors:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Comparing oneself to others
  • Procrastinating

If your teen is exhibiting several of these symptoms, then refer to a worksheet or guide on test anxiety coping skills to help them through it.

Prevalence of Test Anxiety

Test anxiety is more common than we think. Some estimates of the phenomenon are as high as 20% to 40% based on student reports [*].

How to Overcome Test Anxiety

Fortunately, there are several ways that teens can overcome test anxiety, even if it feels impossible. Here are some concrete ways that can help:

Go over test-taking basics

Although teenagers already have experience with taking tests, it doesn’t hurt to go back to the basics so they can succeed. Test anxiety strategies for high school students can involve going over test basics, such as scanning the test before starting, following instructions carefully, and tackling easy questions first.

Practice relaxation strategies

Test anxiety can make teens very tense and unable to relax. By practicing relaxation strategies such as visualization exercises while your teen is calm, you can help them use these skills during test day. Have them imagine a place where they feel comfortable and practice deep breathing. This will help your teen relax before taking their test.

Encourage positive self-talk

Positive self-talk (also known as cognitive reframing) can help teenagers cope with anxious thoughts related to test-taking. It involves replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. Teens may use this during tests when their brain signals that something is too difficult. Rather than saying, “I can’t do this,” they can say, “I can solve this problem!”

Have breaks in between study sessions

Working with no breaks can tire teenagers out and increase their stress levels. Letting them take a few breaks between study sessions is important. Some teens will want to take a nap, while others might prefer going for a walk or watching videos. This will help them feel more relaxed and do better during their exams.

The Bottom Line

Test anxiety is a very real condition that can affect students of all ages. It is a stress response in anticipation of taking a test, which can really make teens quite fearful for a number of reasons. Identifying the causes and symptoms of this condition is important for any parent or guardian to help their child reduce test anxiety.

Using the tips above, you can do many things to relieve your teen of test anxiety. However, it is also good to see a professional if your teenager’s test anxiety does not go away.

Review our collection of anxiety worksheets for additional tools to support teens with anxiety.

References:

  1. Badrian M, Bazrafkan L, Shakour M. Medical science students’ experiences of test anxiety: a phenomenological study. 29 July 2022.
  2. Maier A, Schaitz C, Kröner J, et al. The Association Between Test Anxiety, Self-Efficacy, and Mental Images Among University Students: Results From an Online Survey. 30 November 2021.

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