We’ve all experienced some level of tension or anxiety before an important or high-stakes event, such as public speaking, an interview, or a performance on the athletic field. One of the most anxiety provoking events for teens is tests, especially college admissions tests. It’s estimated that 40% of adolescents suffer from a higher than productive case of nerves before and during tests and other stressful situations, and 20% of teens suffer from severe test anxiety. For some students, the adrenaline and other hormones released in the brain actually improve performance. For others, even a “normal” level can be detrimental.


If your teen has normal levels of nervousness before tests, encourage them to employ the same methods they have learned for athletic events or music performances to “pump themselves up.” These include physical activity (push-ups, a short jog, stretching), mental concentration techniques (visualization of a good performance or reflection on competence), and listening to a certain song that gives them confidence.


However, what if your teen suffers from more severe test anxiety? How can you identify it? What are the causes? And most importantly, how can you help your student reduce it?

Symptoms of Test Anxiety

The signs of test anxiety can be grades and/or standardized test scores that are lower than expected, considering the ability of the student and the effort the student puts in. Note that there are gender differences when both diagnosing and addressing test anxiety. Boys often (but not always) avoid acknowledging test anxiety, and therefore it sometimes manifests as what can look like laziness or lack of interest; girls often are more likely to overcompensate and are more willing to describe it. Even if your teen is denying having test anxiety, you could ask about whether friends talk about it. . By describing the symptoms, the teen might end up confronting his own experience.


Symptoms can be physical, emotional, and cognitive:


Physical symptoms Emotional and cognitive symptoms
Fidgeting, bouncing leg, drumming fingers

Nausea, stomach pain, vomiting, or diarrhea

Rapid heartbeat

Shortness of breath


Faintness, lightheadedness

Body temperature irregularities: sweaty palms, burning cheeks, or chills

Racing thoughts



Negative thoughts, catastrophizing

Self-doubt, indecisiveness




In severe cases of test anxiety, these symptoms may be a precursor to or part of a panic attack.


Techniques to Reduce Test Anxiety

There are both short-term and long-term relaxation techniques that help control emotional (somatic) and worry (cognitive) test anxiety. Once these procedures are learned, the relaxation response will take the place of an anxiety response.


Short-Term: The Tensing and Differential Relaxation Method
  1. Put your feet flat on the floor.
  2. With your hands, grab underneath the chair.
  3. Push down with your feet and pull up on your chair at the same time for about five seconds.
  4. Relax for five to ten seconds.
  5. Repeat the procedure two or three times.
  6. Relax all your muscles except the ones that are actually used to take the test.


Short-Term: The Palming Method
  1. Close and cover your eyes using the center of the palms of your hands.
  2. Prevent your hands from touching your eyes by resting the lower parts of your palms on your cheekbones and placing your fingers on your forehead. Your eyeballs must not be touched or rubbed in any way.
  3. Think of some real or imaginary relaxing scene. Mentally visualize this scene. Picture the scene as if you were actually there, looking through your own eyes.
  4. Visualize this relaxing scene for one to two minutes


Short-Term: Deep Breathing Method
  1. Sit straight up in your chair in a good posture position.
  2. Slowly inhale through your nose.
  3. As you inhale, first fill the lower section of your lungs and work your way up to the upper part of your lungs.
  4. Hold your breath for a few seconds.
  5. Exhale slowly through your mouth.
  6. Wait a few seconds and repeat the cycle.


 Long-Term: Cue-Controlled Relaxation Response

The cue-controlled relaxation response technique is the best long-term relaxation technique. Cue-controlled relaxation means you can induce your own relaxation based on repeating certain cue words to yourself. In essence, you are taught to relax and then silently repeat cue words, such as “I am relaxed.” After enough practice, you can relax during tests.


Long-Term: Eliminating Negative Self-Talk

Negative self-talk (cognitive anxiety) is defined as the negative statements you tell yourself. , causing students to lose confidence and to give up on tests. Students need to change their negative self-talk to positive self-talk without making unrealistic statements. Using positive self-talk both before and during a test can build confidence and decrease your test anxiety.


Examples of negative self-talk:  “No matter what I do, I will not pass the course.”  “I am no good at math, so why should I try?” “I’ll never finish this test on time.” “I’m never going to hit my goal on the SAT (ACT).” “I’m not smart like my friends.” “My parents are going to kill me.” “It’s happening again. I’m so stupid.”

Examples of positive self-talk:  “I failed the course last semester, but I can now use my study/math skills to pass this course.”  “I know that with hard work, I will pass math.” “I prepared for this test and will do the best I can.”  “I feel good about myself and my abilities.” “I am not going to worry about that difficult problem.” “I’m going to use all my test time and check for human errors.”  “I’ve done problems like this before on homework/practice tests and I can do them again.” “Even if I don’t get the score I want on this test, it is not the end of the world.” “Even if I never hit my SAT (ACT) goal, I have so many other things going for me. I’ll get into a great college.”

Thought-stopping techniques: Some students have difficulty converting their negative self-talk into positive. These students need to use a thought-stopping technique to interrupt the worry response before it can cause high anxiety or negative emotions.

To stop  negative thoughts in the classroom or during a test, silently shout “Stop” or “Stop thinking about that.” During the interruption, students can repeat a positive self-talk statement or use a short-term relaxation technique. The student may need to repeat this  several times during a test to control negative self-talk. After every shout, a different relaxation technique/scene or positive self-talk statement should be used.

Students with high anxiety should practice this technique three days to one week before taking a test.


Long-term: Meditation

If you are cynical about meditation reducing stress, read up–it really works, and recent Harvard Medical School reports review the evidence. The longer a student practices, the better the results, but even last minute meditations before a test can be helpful. You can find several on YouTube, ranging from five to 15 minutes: just search test anxiety meditation.


Long-term: Reduced/Managed Screen Time

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) estimates that the average child spends seven hours a day looking at a screen, be it a cell phone, computer, TV, or other electronic device. Because adolescent brains are much more sensitive to electronics use than we may realize, children and teens can suffer dramatic negative effects from the six-to-seven hours a day the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates our kids spend looking at screens. Research has linked the resultant “sensory overload” to poor mood regulation, anxiety, sleeplessness, and symptoms that mimic those of serious mental health disorders. However, reducing screen time for adolescents is extremely difficult to do; one way is to set up a challenge among friends for just a couple of weeks prior to a high-stakes test or other event; read about additional strategies here.


If you think your teen may be dealing with test anxiety, take heart: there are many resources and methods that can help. We strongly recommend that you contact a professional, as well; at the very least, having a professional diagnosis may translate to extra time on standardized tests, reducing any time-limit stress the student may be feeling. Try to avoid labeling your student as a “bad test taker” or “not good in math.” And remember, all students–but particularly those who have trouble with test anxiety–should reduce/manage screen time and maintain good eating and sleep habits the week of the test.

Interested in a workbook?

The Anxiety Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Deal with Anxiety and Worry, by Lisa M. Schab, is a great place to start, as is another in the same series: Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens: A Workbook to Break the Nine Thought Habits That Are Holding You Back, by Mary Karapetian Alvord, PhD.