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The 8 Symptoms of Test Anxiety We Don't Talk About


Most people don’t enjoy taking tests. I don’t think I have ever heard someone call an assessment “fun.” There is a “normal” level of stress or pressure that comes with test-taking whether it be self-imposed or from parents and teachers. We all anticipate those crucial minutes we are given to complete the packet of papers filled with rigorous questions. We spend hours preparing and studying for an examination, an exam that asks you to condense weeks of classwork and information into 60 minutes on paper. We want to cover it all, we want to know it all, we want to be a “successful” student.

Then, the moment comes. The room full of rowdy young adults is taken by a wave of silence. The teacher marches by each row, handing each student a daunting packet. You have done everything you can at this point, now you are alone with your memory, paper, a pencil and a clock ticking.

No one talks about the extreme toll generalized anxiety disorder combined with test anxiety can take on someone’s life. It is hard to recognize or be fully aware of how draining tests can be on our youth. You never know what others are going through. The classmate who is pretty much a stranger taking a test right next to you may be struggling with their own thoughts and you could have no idea. I didn’t know either, until it happened to me.

Test anxiety can cause students to not perform or demonstrate their knowledge accurately on exams. There is a huge difference between the natural nervousness that comes with test-taking and my debilitating mental illness-related anxiety. Test anxiety is usually ignored by schools and teachers, thought to be  invalid because “hey, everyone gets nervous with tests.”

Here are some symptoms I have experienced to encourage others to know they are not alone:

1. Sweating

I am all too familiar with excessive sweating. Anytime I have a test, I can’t raise my hand for the rest of the day. I have sweat through my shirt, sweatshirt and coat before. The sweating is a physical outcome from my spike in heart rate due to my body going into panic mode. I get anxious about the sweating and wondering if others notice the bullets coming down my forehead. These worries just increase the symptoms and I sweat more as a result of thinking about sweating.

2. Hair pulling and head scratching

At times, this is a coping mechanism that helps me focus on the question at hand and try to ignore the tornado of thoughts in my head. Other times, I keep messing with my hair so much my scalp bleeds. I have improved a lot and luckily no longer get to this point but I guess I was looking for some form of control. I couldn’t control the time flying by me, the format of the test, whether or not my answers were good enough for the teacher or my own ideas spiraling out of control. I have learned the only thing I can actively regulate is the way and amount I study and sometimes it isn’t even enough. But it is just a test. I’m confident anyone who struggles with test anxiety has heard these words before. But truly, it is just one single test, a couple pieces of paper asking you questions. It is not going to matter 10 years or hell, 10 days from now. There will always be more assignments and tests to contribute to your cumulative grade. This is just one factor of the lengthy process and you can get through it.

3. Nail picking

I can’t fix my questions after I’ve turned in the test. I can’t name the term on the tip of my tongue or go back and review one more time. Because of this, I try to find something else that isn’t perfect to “fix.” Once I start I can’t stop. I zone out and the only thing that matters is trying to get my hands to look perfect. I push and push and this typically results in having to visit the nurse to get another Band-Aid to hide my bloody fingers.

4. Clammy hands

My hands turn ice cold. As the anxiety kicks up, so does the sweating. My hands begin getting super clammy and I have a difficult time just grasping the pencil to write with. Multiple times throughout one assessment, I will have to put down my materials and wipe my hands on my clothes. My hands get so cold I have to sit on them and just take a moment to breathe. During this process, I repeat to myself some of my mantras. This too shall pass. Grades don’t distinguish my character, I do. Just try your best.

5. Shaking

Shaking is the result of having to form chapters of information into words and insightful sentences while your entire body is in “fight or flight” mode and doing everything in its power to fight against itself. I often think the movement of my quivering hands or legs is just a physical sign of the multitude of thoughts racing internally. Alternatively, I use the repeated movements as a calming method to allow myself consistency and power by using my own body.

6. Panic attacks

Panic attacks happen on really good days and really bad days. I can walk into a classroom feeling super confident, relaxed and in a fantastic mood, but then it hits. Though virtually nothing is wrong, it feels like everything’s falling apart. My first panic attacks were triggered by tests. I began to connect testing with panicking so I would become anxious about being anxious for a test. I have had multiple panic attacks during assessments.

One time in particular, my heart was beating so fast I was sick to my stomach and ready to throw up. In the middle of the test, I stormed out of the classroom and sprinted for the bathroom. I curled up next to the toilet sobbing and tried to remind myself I’m not physically dying even if it feels like it. After I was able to wipe my tears from my face and breathe steadily, I returned to the classroom and turned in my blank test. Despite having studied for a week, I was physically and emotionally drained and literally could not even flip past the first page due to my anxiety. I left school and went home to recover. The world was just too suffocating for me that day. I began to realize my mental health was more important than a letter on a report card that wouldn’t be relevant five years from now.  

7. Uncontrollable emotions

After every panic attack during a test, I become sad or angry. I get furious and get in the mood where I just hate the world. I’m upset because I don’t like the way I think or think I should be a better student and I’m just making excuses. Sometimes I think how tests are extremely inaccurate in measuring someone’s intellect. Or I think about how easy it is for others to just take a test and that I should have managed my time better. On the other hand, I can experience sadness and depression. I feel hopeless and believe the anxiety will never pass. I am ashamed and disappointed with my reaction and inability to handle such a common task in life.

8. Perfectionism

I am a perfectionist. This is one of the causes of my severe anxiety. I want everything to be in order and flawless at all times. Humans make mistakes and will inherently mess up. No one can live up to absurdly out of reach standards. I have always accepted this in others but never in myself. I compare myself to my classmates. While taking a test, if someone is a page ahead of me, it must mean I’m stupid. I have anxiety about bubbling in my answers on a Scantron. At my worst, I spent 25 minutes erasing, filling back in and erasing again the little boxes for me to pencil in my answer. I can’t count the number of times I wrote half or a whole in-class essay only to crumple it up and throw it away with 20 minutes left. It is impossible for anyone to write a well-developed honors level essay in such little time. But my unsatisfied thoughts take control and I would rather turn in the start of a picture-perfect essay than a decent and completed one. Everything must be perfect. This is the burden some of the 3.3 million American adults diagnosed with a type of anxiety disorder experience every single day.

These are only a few of the symptoms of test anxiety. Remember, it is just some papers stapled together. It may feel like forever, but it is only a few minutes of your life. Grades do not define your value or who you are as a person. I know, it is exhausting to be constantly doubting yourself and seeking reassurance, but it gives you a unique perspective in life. Anxiety has heightened my eye for detail, made me trust more, increased my memory and made me an overall stronger human being.

“You don’t have to control your thoughts. You just have to stop letting them control you.”  — Dan Millman

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Thinkstock photo via cmcderm1.