Exam anxiety

Exam anxiety

“I wake up in the morning and the first thing that comes to my mind is next week’s exam. I start to get nervous and my stomach knots. I’m sure I haven’t prepared enough and I’ll fail… I’ll go blank, I’ll crash. I have to start studying, but it’s like a mountain for me. My hands sweat and I have a hard time concentrating. It’s the same thing that happens to me when it comes to taking the exam, but just before that, it’s even worse! So I’m sure I’ll do it wrong. It would be best not to show up and at least then I won’t suffer so much or disappoint anyone”.

If your child gets very nervous when there are exams and this sounds familiar, it is quite possible that they suffer from exam anxiety. In pre-adolescence (11-13 years old), social and school fears become increasingly important, so it is very likely that this anxiety will appear. To learn more about evolutionary fears you can visit the blog “Fears in childhood. Should I act or let it get over it?“.

Anxiety is a natural emotion that is useful to us because it puts us on alert to a possible threat. When presented at moderate levels, it facilitates performance and increases motivation. However, when levels are high, it can lead to a loss of control over our behavior.

Test anxiety is a set of negative reactions that many teens experience when they perceive the test as a threat or a stressful situation. This can be the case:

  • Before the test (anticipatory anxiety): when you are studying for the test or thinking about it.
  • During the (situational) exam

Why does it happen?

There are several causes, but the most common are:

  • Poor exam preparation: lack of planning, last-minute “binges”, lack of understanding and/or organization of information, etc.
  • The exam situation itself: having to prove what we know in a short time and/or receive a grade (grade).
  • Negative thoughts related to: previous exams, comparisons with others, excessive demands on ourselves and/or negative consequences of doing poorly on the exam.


Exam anxiety can occur at three different levels:

Physiological/emotional level


  • Shortness of breath or a feeling of choking
  • Palpitations or fast heartbeat
  • Sweating or cold, clammy hands
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness or feelings of unsteadiness
  • Nausea, diarrhea, or other abdominal disorders
  • Hot flashes or chills
  • Frequent urination
  • Difficulty swallowing or feeling like you have a lump in your throat
  • Difficulty sleeping


  • Nervousness and restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Fear
  • Apprehension

Cognitive level

Negative thoughts:

  • Negative self-evaluation: “I’m incapable of studying everything”, “I’m worse than others”, “I’m not good enough to study”
  • Anticipating that you are going to fail: “I will go blank and fail”, “I will not know how to answer”, “I am sure I will not remember everything”
  • Notice physical sensations: “my hands are shaking” “I can’t remember” “my heart is racing too fast”
  • Imagining very negative consequences of failure: “they’re going to think I’m useless”, “I’m not going to be able to finish my studies”

Brain fog:

  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions

Difficulty reading and understanding questions, organizing thoughts, or remembering words or concepts (“Blanking”).

Motor/Behavioral Level

  • Disturbances in verbal motor behavior: tremor of the voice, repetitions, stuttering, etc.
  • Motor restlessness: wandering, repetitive movements, scratching, touching, tremors, tics, etc.
  • Increased consumption of substances (e.g. stimulants, relaxants, vitamin complexes, etc.)
  • Increased or decreased food intake
  • Inappropriate behaviors: watching TV, sleeping, playing, spending time in front of books… instead of studying.
  • Avoidance and/or escape from the feared situation: dropping the exam or not showing up


All these manifestations that we have mentioned have negative consequences:

  • Attention, memory, and recall: Anxiety has an interfering effect that decreases both the ability to pay attention and process information. For this reason, anxiety hinders memorization and impairs recall.
  • Academic performance: due to difficulties in cognitive processes both in the run-up to the exam and in the execution of the exam, academic performance worsens.

Aftermath of exam anxiety

How to overcome exam anxiety?

The therapy that has been shown to be most effective is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Through this, we can help adolescents identify and modify those negative and invalidating thoughts and look for strategies that help them face the emotions and sensations they feel during the preparation of the exam and the completion of it. Also, learn to adopt appropriate study habits for good preparation.

To achieve greater effectiveness, we also work with parents and/or guardians to offer strategies to reduce anxiety symptoms and accompany them in the therapeutic process.

If every time your child goes to take an exam, feelings of worry and insecurity begin to appear, they freeze, and sometimes they go completely blank and are not able to answer the questions, they may suffer from test anxiety.

It’s normal to feel a little nervous or stressed about an exam, but when that feeling intensifies it can affect performance and concentration. If you suspect that your child may have these symptoms, do not hesitate to contact us. We will be happy to help you.

Laura Maymó Gallurt
Psychologist Col. Nº B-03427