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The Neuroscience of Test Anxiety

Physiology-Test-Anxiety-HeaderFor many students, college admission tests are accompanied by unpleasant physical and emotional side effects – heart palpitations, distractibility, nervousness, self-doubt – which sometimes lead to lackluster scores. We subsume all of these phenomena into the category of ‘test anxiety.’

Although test anxiety is common enough, its physiological underpinnings remain a mystery to most. Fortunately, research on the brain and its partner-in-crime, the autonomic nervous system, has exploded in the last few decades. New technology, especially fMRI scans, has illuminated the inner workings of the brain and its various mental states, including fear and anxiety.

In this post, I will review the neurological origins of anxiety and suggest solutions for managing it. I will primarily pull from the research and insights of Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and best-selling author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. Hanson’s book is particularly useful, because it pairs esoteric brain research with practical exercises that help soothe an anxious mind. At the crux of Hanson’s text is the belief that contemplative traditions, especially Buddhism, allow us to rewire our brains and undo psychological suffering at its root.

The Threat-Response Mechanism

A basic understanding of the anatomy of the brain and the threat-response mechanism is necessary to comprehend test anxiety.

First, from an evolutionary perspective, we know that our brain is comprised of both ancient ‘subcortical’ structures (e.g. the limbic system) and more complex, human ‘cortical’ structures (e.g. the prefrontal cortex). Subcortical structures primarily evolved for the purpose of survival; they allow us to detect threats, activate the body to avoid threats, and stow away memories of threats to prevent future occurrences.

Conversely, cortical structures allow us to do the more complex reasoning and emotional work that are central to humanity as a species. Generally speaking, subcortical structures are more readily activated or ‘favored’ by the brain, because they are responsible for keeping us alive. Favoritism toward subcortical structures, however, becomes problematic when these structures activate at inappropriate times (like when taking the SAT).

In a highly simplified way, this is how our brain and body respond to threats:

  • Physical, psychological, and emotional threats all trigger the brain in similar ways. In Rick Hanson’s words, threats and suffering ‘cascade through your body’ via the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA) of the endocrine (hormonal) system.
  • The amygdala, a subcortical structure, signals a neural alarm bell that prompts the following processes:
    • Stimulates the brain stem, which releases norepinephrine throughout the body, shunting blood to important muscle groups (i.e. those necessary for attack or escape).
    • Galvanizes the hypothalamus – the brain’s regulator of the endocrine system – which releases cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline). Epinephrine increases heart rate while cortisol puts the brakes on the immune system to prevent inflammation of potential wounds.
    • Intensifies emotions and prioritizes the encoding of negative affect into the brain. The hippocampus, which is responsible for recording new, accurate memories is shut down.
    • Increases the output of stress hormones that inhibit the executive control of cortical structures. In extreme cases, our working memory, which is responsible for retaining sophisticated linguistic and spatial information, is wiped clean to make room for more automatic physical and mental actions.

As you can imagine, the SNS/HPAA system was handy for early man as he fended off dangerous predators. However, in today’s world, blowing up your sympathetic nervous system does more harm than good. A hyperactive SNS will make you hot-headed, irrational, aggressive, and – as we will discuss in a moment – unnecessarily anxious.

So What Is Anxiety?

Psychological and Physiological Origins

Much of the pain we experience in life is unavoidable: physical pain results from our aging, mortal bodies; emotional pain derives from the eventual loss of loved ones. However, a great deal of our daily suffering is rooted in our appraisals of pain and our reactions to it.

According to Hanson, the unavoidable discomfort of life is what Buddha called the ‘first dart of existence.’ Our maladaptive responses to these first darts – guilt about our actions, anger regarding our circumstances, or anxiety about unfavorable outcomes – are known as ‘second darts.’ Second darts are psychological in nature and can enact the SNS/HPAA system with just as much potency as physical threat or pain.

To use Hanson’s language, anxiety is a mental consequence (among many others) of throwing second darts at ourselves.

Now let’s get to the biology of anxiety:

When the SNS/HPAA system and amygdala are triggered too often, they lead to the rapid arousal of state anxiety (anxiety based on specific situations). Additionally, the amygdala helps form implicit memories (traces of past experiences beneath consciousness) that are colored with fear and lead to trait anxiety (ongoing anxiety regardless of the situation).

As I mentioned earlier, activation of the amygdala suppresses the formation of explicit memories, which leads to the encoding of distorted, emotionally-laden implicit memories. The outcome: individuals feel uncomfortably ‘keyed up’ and stressed during an activity – like test-taking – and can’t figure out why. An anxious test-taker likely has a sensitized amygdala and fearful implicit memories of past testing experiences that surface without conscious awareness.

What Is Test Anxiety?

On its face, test anxiety is easy to define. It is an overactive, often unconscious threat-response that is triggered by the act of testing. The more complex aspects of test anxiety involve the unique configurations of ‘second darts’ that affect each student.

Second Darts for Test-Takers

Beyond the grueling, four-hour slog that typifies college admission tests (an unavoidable ‘first dart’), students may be stymied by any number of second darts that trigger the SNS/HPAA system. Here are some common second darts that we see in the test prep industry:

  • A student has a history of poor performances on standardized tests and believes that the SAT/ACT will perpetuate past results. He has immense shame about previous test scores and is self-defeating in his assumptions about the future: “I’ll never be any good at testing.”
  • A student fears that the college admission test will define his educational and professional trajectory in life, which shades the exam with excessive importance and triggers a flight response.
  • A student is high-achieving and worries that a sub-stellar performance will dramatically undermine a portfolio of academic successes. At a psychological level, he fears the dissolution of an identity – being the ‘smart kid’ – that is precariously buoyed by grades and test scores.
  • A student is a part of a minority group and fears that poor performance will confirm negative stereotypes about his identity: gender, race, class, etc. The phenomenon of stereotype threat is well-documented in the field of psychology.

The combination of a rigorous, lengthy, high-stakes exam (first dart) and the added pressure that students place on themselves (second dart) is a recipe for powerful anxiety.

Using the Mind to Eliminate Test Anxiety

After reading about anxiety and the threat-response mechanism, you may feel betrayed by your own mind and body. As I mentioned earlier, we simply do not need the same survival instincts as our mammalian ancestors. Fortunately, our flexible human brains allow us to deliberately curb adverse reactions to suffering – including test anxiety – and enhance our capacities for happiness and peace.

When Neurons Fire Together, They Wire Together

A principle tenet of Hanson’s book is the mutual plasticity of the ‘mind’ and the ‘brain.’ Hanson shores up a ton of research that shows how our conscious thoughts impact the physical make-up of our brains and bodies, and vice-versa. At a cellular level, the 1.1 billion neurons that constitute our brains connect or disconnect, turn on or off, based on the character of mental events. In fact, even beneath consciousness, every positive and negative emotional episode leaves an indelible trace in our minds.

Unfortunately, because of the biases of subcortical structures, negative events are more easily consolidated into our memories, and our perceptions of the present are more readily drawn to troublesome stimuli. Consequently, it requires real effort to shift the emotional tenor of our thoughts and behaviors to a more positive tone.

Activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System

Although we have examined the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) in detail thus far, its counterbalance, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), is most essential to mitigating test anxiety. Broadly construed, the PNS is what compels the body to ‘rest and digest,’ especially after the activation of the SNS. The PNS brings the body and its functions to equilibrium – slowing breathing, re-organizing blood flow, resuming digestion, etc. As a result of the PNS, the cortical functions of the brain come into full view, allowing for clear thinking and complex problem-solving.

Ultimately, the PNS yields a sense of tranquility and coolness that students need to tackle college admission tests.

Here are some quick ways to activate the PNS that can be done before or during the administration of a test:

  • Progressive Relaxation: For 3 to 10 minutes, bring different parts of your body into awareness and tense and relax them. You may move vertically along your body, starting with your feet and ending with your brow.
  • Big Exhalation: Inhale as much as possible, hold the breath for a few seconds, and slowly exhale. A big inhalation expands your lungs, which then require a big exhalation to bring them back to their resting size. This action stimulates the PNS, which controls exhaling.
  • Touching the Lips: Parasympathetic fibers are distributed throughout your lips, so touching them activates your PNS. The presence of these fibers is likely linked to early feeding behaviors in infants.
  • Meditation: Meditative practices are the lifeblood of the PNS. A simple ‘mindfulness meditation’ involves the monitoring of breathing and the internal sensations of the body for a prolonged period of time. Mindfulness meditation can last anywhere from 3 minutes to an hour depending on the desired depth of the exercise. Research has demonstrated that meditation improves the well-being of the brain by:
    • Increasing gray matter, which allows for stronger attention.
    • Increasing activation of left frontal regions, which lifts mood.
    • Decreasing stress-related cortisol.
    • Strengthening the immune system.

Conclusion: Above All Else, Be Kind to Yourself

Although test anxiety is chiefly the result of the high-stakes nature of college admission tests, the strength of anxiety and its concomitant affects (e.g. lack of confidence, self-loathing, shame, etc.) can be ameliorated by recognizing second darts and challenging their premises. As I stated before, college admission tests are an inexorable reality of the admission process, however, they don’t need to trigger additional emotional baggage. For test-takers who continue to beat themselves up about subpar scores, help them redefine the significance of these exams. Having been in the field of test preparation for nearly a decade, I can confidently say that test scores are not the arbiters of adult success in school and career. For parents reading this post, explain to your students that success in life does not always follow a linear path: immaculate GPA -> great test scores -> college acceptance -> lucrative and fulfilling career.

One of Hanson’s most interesting methods for stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system is visualization. More specifically, he advises that we cultivate self-empathy, nullifying the impact of second darts, by imagining ourselves as young children. Hanson asks, ‘Would we berate our child selves with the same harshness that we turn toward our adult or adolescent selves?’ Definitely not. Your present self is just as deserving of compassion as your ‘child-like’ self – particularly during the stressful process of college admission testing.

Hopefully what I have written provides a first step toward understanding and coping with test anxiety. I welcome any additional questions or anecdotes related to test anxiety that you would like to share. Compass prides itself in its holistic approach to tutoring, unifying strategy and conceptual teachings with personal empowerment and the abolition of test anxiety.

Matty Steiner

Prior to joining Compass, Matty obtained their MA from the University of Chicago and a BA from UC Santa Cruz. They have over a decade of experience in the field of test preparation, having worked as an instructor, consultant, and keynote speaker on the topic of admission testing.


  • Cynthia welsh says:

    I enjoyed reading your article on anxiety and test taking. Being a practicing yogini, I know that all the breathing recommendations, meditation and visualizations work for decreasing stress and anxiety. Has Compass ever thought of offering a workshop to it’s students so they can teach them these skills in person? What a wonderful addition to your tutoring to give them these life time skills of reducing stress and anxiety as they journey on in their academic lives.

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Hi Cynthia,
      Thank you for writing such a thoughtful comment! Compass hasn’t fully integrated mindfulness and meditation into its practices, but I imagine these topics would be well-received by tutors, students, and parents. A workshop is a splendid idea – perhaps this summer or fall. 🙂

  • Hello Matt,
    Thanks for reminding me of the great book The Buddha’s brain. We have very similar book in Czech basically talking about the same things and research on fMRI and whole my life is a proof that Rick Hanson’s hypotheses are correct. I’m not sure if he mentioned that in his book, but other way how to activate PNS is to do yourself a hand massage and from own experience as well as it was mentioned by Paulo Coelho or Mirzakarim Norbekov if you stand in straight posture, take a deep breath and have a smile on your cheek it activates PNS almost instantly.

    • Matt Steiner says:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Vaclav! I so appreciate your contributions, and will definitely give those PNS-stimulating behaviors a try. I’ll have to research Coelho and Norbekov. 🙂

  • Michelle says:

    Fascinating article. Great read… just making it through finals here and found your article. I am an exercise science student so lots of things make sense. The visualization aspect I haven’t tried before. Wishing you great strides in your research! -Michelle