You studied well for the test.
The material has been reviewed and you feel pretty confident that you know it.
Finally, you're at the desk, the test is there in front of you and WHAM.
You freeze up and the telltale symptoms of test-taking anxiety start to shout across your body and brain.
It's a classic fight or flight response with emphasis on the flight!
See our article on Your complete guide to CBDs benefits for anxiety.
It's estimated that between 25 and 40% of people have some degree of test anxiety.
We'll leave all the symptoms to the countless other sites out there.
We want to go deeper into this particular kind of performance anxiety.
What's actually going on and more importantly, can we do anything to help with it.
There's actually some pretty interesting research on CBD and performance anxiety which we'll get into along the way.
We'll cover these areas:
- What causes test anxiety in the brain
- Stress response and test anxiety
- The endocannabinoid system and test anxiety
- Can CBD help with test anxiety
- How to use CBD for test anxiety
What causes test anxiety in the brain
A quick recap.
Test-taking anxiety definitely falls under the heading of performance anxiety.
In terms of the mechanism, it's a classic threat response reshuffling of priorities between two very different brains.
Our brain operates under dual control.
On one hand, we have the much older limbic areas which we share with all animals.
It's often referred to as the "reptilian" brain and yes, lizards also share most of this structure.
These areas include:
- Amygdala - fear and emotional processing
- Hippocampus - modulates stress response and memory
- Hypothalamus - key manager of bodily stress hormone response
In times of threat (of a test as an example), this system fires into high gear to protect us.
See our article on Can CBD stimulate the hippocampus for neurogenesis and CBD and neurogenesis for anxiety.
It works faster, more efficiently, and decisively in times of threat.
The opposing "brain" is our most recent addition, primarily the prefrontal cortex.
This is a decidedly human addition that sits behind our forehead.
It's much newer to the evolution party and is the seat of reason, decision making, planning, and a host of "managerial" tasks.
The primary anxiety circuit resides with the amygdala (fear response) and the prefrontal cortex.
The immediate mechanism is rather simple.
In times of acute (or perceived) stress, the amygdala is given decision making powers.
The prefrontal cortex is partially overridden due to threat response.
Signals from the amygdala eventually get to the prefrontal cortex to review if the response was valid.
In a state of intense stress or threat response, this communication slows to a crawl.
Even quite mild acute uncontrollable stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities, and more prolonged stress exposure causes architectural changes in prefrontal dendrites.
If you need to know why the prefrontal cortex is so important to test-taking:
Neuroscientists such as Patricia Goldman-Rakic referred to this process as working memory: the ability to keep in mind an event that has just occurred, or bring to mind information from long-term storage, and use this representational knowledge to regulate behavior, thought and emotion
That's the "mind goes blank" effect which just feeds the anxiety response.
It's all spelled out pretty succinctly here:
Under conditions of psychological stress (see part b of the figure) the amygdala activates stress pathways in the hypothalamus and brainstem, which evokes high levels of noradrenaline (NA) and dopamine (DA) release. This impairs PFC regulation but strengthens the amygdala function, thus setting up a ‘vicious cycle’.
PFC is short for the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain we need for...test taking.
There's a good walkthrough of this process here:
This then begs the question...why do some people trigger this anxiety circuit from tests while others do not?
There, it gets a little more interesting.
Stress response and test anxiety
Test anxiety can generally be the result of two factors:
- Situation effects - pressure from parents, past testing, preparedness, etc
- Trait anxiety affects - individual anxiety responses across a range of situations
There are lots of studies on drivers specific to test-taking:
- Parental or teacher pressure
- Prior test anxiety
- Not being prepared
- Settings (where, when, how, etc)
There are also anxiety trait differences between people.
This a function of how we're wired to handle stressful situations (such as testing).
Some people's threshold may be lower for stress and anxiety, in general, be it test-taking, public speaking, or a host of performance-related anxieties.
One study looked at how induced stress affected memory in individuals with "trait" anxiety and those without:
Finally, trait CPA moderated the effect of stress on threat-interference during higher cognitive load: individuals with higher trait CPA in the stress group showed higher threat-interference.
WM is working memory. CPA is short for "cognitive performance anxiety".
Essentially, everyone was negatively affected by the stressful cues but those with trait anxiety had a bigger effect.
This gets into a whole different area of "trait" anxiety.
We've written extensively with lots of research on associated aspects:
- CBD and Social anxiety - fear of judgment, failure, and the specific brain areas unique to these feelings
- CBD and panic attack - all the hallmark physical reactions of performance anxiety
- CBD and general anxiety disorder - how anxiety traits can be expressed and even changed!
There's a huge tie between social anxiety and test-taking anxiety:
Results reveal negative relations between social identification and almost all investigated emotional and cognitive symptoms of test anxiety.
Of course the most relevant is CBD and performance anxiety.
See our article on CBD and performance anxiety.
An interesting actor came out of that research.
You probably haven't heard of it but researchers found it was directly tied to stress threshold.
They took soldiers exposed to high-stress war-time situations and looked at differences between those who developed PTSD as a result and those who did not.
Grace under pressure if you will.
Neuropeptide Y (NPY) was a difference between the two:
Blood samples taken from soldiers in the training programs showed those who fared best under extreme stress had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher levels of neuropeptide y, a chemical that dampens the body’s stress response.
Another study administered NPY to test the effects on anxiety.
They found the results were significant for somatic (the resulting feelings of anxiety) effects of anxiety:
There was a significant interaction between treatment and dose; higher doses of neuropeptide Y were associated with a greater treatment effect, favoring neuropeptide Y over placebo on the Beck Anxiety Inventory score (F1,20=4.95, P=.038).
This ties to the "fight or flight" responses that are common with test anxiety.
That's 100 times the effect of NPY over placebo.
NPY is thought to be an agent of resilience in terms of emotional processing.
If NPY is protective in stressful situations like test-taking, what about the other side of the coin.
When the anxiety to test-taking first starts, what's the procession in the brain?
First, we have a release of chemicals called catecholamines.
You probably know them as adrenaline and norepinephrine.
That's the initial start of the process (dictated by the hypothalamus).
A knock-on effect of this initiation is the release of our most powerful stress hormone:
See our article on Does CBD lower cortisol.
When you combine all of this, you have resulting negative effects to taking a test:
- Physiological overarousal – often termed emotionality. Somatic signs include headaches, stomach aches, nausea, diarrhea, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, light-headedness or fainting, rapid heartbeat, and dry mouth. Test anxiety can also lead to panic attacks, in which the student may have a sudden intense fear, difficulty breathing, and extreme discomfort.
- Worry and dread – maladaptive cognitions. This includes catastrophic expectations of gloom and doom, fear of failure, random thoughts, feelings of inadequacy, self-condemnation, negative self-talk, frustration and comparing oneself unfavorably to others.
- Cognitive/Behavioral – poor concentration, "going blank" or "freezing," confusion, and poor organization. The inability to concentrate leads to impaired performance on tests. Fidgeting during or outright avoidance of the test. Students often report "blanking out" even though they have studied sufficiently for the test.
- Emotional – low self-esteem, depression, anger, and a feeling of hopelessness.
Remember that fight or flight is there to protect us from danger.
Everything else gets put on the back burner (including long term memory, algebra, and US history).
Since our stress threshold is key to test-taking anxiety, let's look at the system tasked with governing it.
The endocannabinoid system and test anxiety
We all have a natural system called the endocannabinoid system which we share with every living animal (even sea urchins).
It dates back about 600 million years old so clearly nature has found a need for it.
Specifically, it's tasked with balancing other key systems:
- Nervous system - neurotransmitters tied to anxiety circuit like GABA, glutamate, NPY, and more
- Endocrine system - hormones such as cortisol, adrenalin, and more
- Immune system - inflammatory and stress responders
Obviously, these come into play with test-taking anxiety but if we scan out a bit, we see the bigger picture.
This system is more generally what responds to stress.
Stress isn't always a bad thing. It just means anything that spurs a change in our internal systems.
Good or bad.
The endocannabinoid system is tasked with bringing levels back to balance after the stressor is gone.
Let's look at how this applies to test-taking anxiety as a form of performance anxiety.
We'll start granularly with the actual fight or flight response pathway.
Is the endocannabinoid system involved at all?
We've covered the stress response at our CBD, stress, and anxiety here.
What about the other side of it...the system designed to calm down the stress response.
Corticosterone reverses the stress response that can runaway:
After corticosterone is released, the frequency of miniature excitatory postsynaptic currents (mEPSCs) in PVN are suppressed, which decreases glutamatergic excitability and increases GABA inhibition
Glutamate is excitatory and GABA is our brain's natural "brake".
See our article on How CBD affects Glutamate.
Reduced GABA is directly tied to anxiety states. In fact, this is the sole effect that benzodiazepines have on anxiety (see CBD and benzos here).
Put a checkmark next to GABA and corticosterone for later with CBD.
Here's why it matters for the endocannabinoid system:
These effects of corticosterone in the PVN occur mainly via non-genomic GR activity and endocannabinoid signaling
Thus the whole process is mediated by CB1 receptors which are part of the endocannabinoid system!
In fact, in another study, they blocked the CB1 receptors and the effects of this fight or flight chemical avalanche would not happen:
The glucocorticoid effect was not blocked by the nitric oxide synthesis antagonist N(G)-nitro-L-arginine methyl ester hydrochloride or by hemoglobin but was blocked completely by the CB1 cannabinoid receptor antagonists
They went on to say:
The links between the actions of glucocorticoids and cannabinoids in the hypothalamus that regulate stress and energy homeostasis.
"Stress homeostasis" just means stress balance.
See our article on How does CBD affect the best kept secret neurotransmitter.
We're going to save the individual actors below with CBD.
Check out CBD, stress, and anxiety here for more detail.
Can CBD help with test anxiety
Performance anxiety, in general, maybe one of our favorite topics.
Mainly, because we have such a powerful and well-designed study with public speaking anxiety.
It's an almost perfect proxy for test-taking anxiety since it focuses on both cognitive functioning and intense anxiety of judgment and fear of failure.
We'll finish with that but first, some of the key items from above for test-taking anxiety.
Let's look at the fight or flight mechanism specifically.
We'll treat it as a cascade of effect.
First, starting with cortisol (human corticosteroid) which is our primary stress responder.
This decrease in cortisol levels was significantly attenuated after CBD
They went on to say:
The present results suggest that CBD interferes with cortisol secretion.
Of course, we can see the direct effects in "symptoms" tied to test-taking anxiety such as blood pressure:
This data shows that acute administration of CBD reduces resting BP and the BP increase to stress in humans, associated with increased HR.
The key there is "stress in humans".
Remember when we discussed the power of GABA (our brain's natural brake)?
New research is pointing to decreased GABA's role in the hippocampus at the heart of negative, unwanted thoughts:
Higher hippocampal, but not prefrontal GABA, predicted stronger fronto-hippocampal coupling during suppression, suggesting that interneurons local to the hippocampus implement control over intrusive thoughts.
So, GABA levels in the hippocampus.
What can CBD do there?
The first clue is here:
The hippocampus is a forebrain structure that presents a very high expression of CB1 receptors (Tsou et al., 1998), mainly in cholecystokinin (CCK)-positive GABAergic interneurons
That's a mouthful (it will be on the test).
Essentially, the CB1 receptors are heavily concentrated in the GABA neurons in the hippocampus.
That's step 1!
Remember cortisol from above?
A stressful situation or corticosterone administration cause endocannabinoid-mediated suppression of GABAergic transmission in the hippocampus
That's step 2.
We already know that CBD reduces cortisol release from above which unblock GABA in the hippocampus per step 2.
Finally...CBD's effects on GABA:
Across regions, CBD increased GABA+ in controls
It also reduces glutamate (the gas pedal).
Check out CBD and GABA for much more research on this.
We've been talking about the components of test-taking anxiety.
Let's look at that public speaking anxiety study.
We have an entire write-up on it at our CBD and public speaking anxiety page.
A quick synopsis...with an especially powerful note for test-taking.
Basically, they took two groups of people:
- People with social anxiety disorder diagnosis
- Control group without
They they split each group into two treatments:
- CBD 600 mg
Each person then had to perform a public speaking task.
Keep in mind that public speaking is the most prevalent fear we have (even more than death)!
Unlike athletic performance, it also involves cognition (memory, verbal, thought process, etc) similar to test-taking.
Pretreatment with CBD significantly reduced anxiety, cognitive impairment and discomfort in their speech performance, and significantly decreased alert in their anticipatory speech.
The key there is "cognitive" when it comes to test-taking.
Here's where it gets interesting.
Remember how we talked about the negative thoughts about one's self?
There's a way to test for that in psychology.
It's called the Negative Self Statement test.
Basically how you view yourself.
The results there:
The SSPS-N scores evidenced significant increases during the testing of the placebo group that was almost abolished in the CBD group.
More importantly, there were looking at people with a known social anxiety diagnosis.
It's hard enough speaking publicly if you don't have social anxiety.
This is a wonderful proxy study for test-taking till we have actual studies on that front.
Again, check out:
- CBD and performance anxiety
- CBD and social anxiety
- CBD and public speaking fear
- CBD and panic attacks
How to use CBD for test anxiety
The whens, wheres, and how much of CBD for test-taking.
Let's start with how much.
The study above on public speaking was 600 mg 1.5 hours prior to the test.
That's a big dose.
Again, the safety is strong for CBD but it's good to first test 25-30 mg.
A good estimated range depending on your anxiety state is 100-300mg based on experience.
We focus on CBD Isolate (just CBD and base MCT oil from coconut) since there can be side effects from full-spectrum.
Plus, 40-60% of the population has histamine issues and all that plant material is the wrong direction.
Histamine is excitatory!
It eats up the very GABA we're trying to boost above (for negative thoughts and calm under pressure).
All the sales pitches for full-spectrum are wanted for research.
All the research above and across NIH is for CBD isolate.
Everything else is a sales job until we see hard research.
Learn all about why CBD Isolate for anxiety here.
In terms of timing, peak CBD in the bloodstream is about 1-2 hours after ingestion.
You can speed uptake by holding it under your tongue for 60 seconds and then swallowing.
Check out the quick start tips for CBD here.
Also, learn about CBD, exercise, and mindful meditation for long term anxiety.
That won't help with the test tomorrow but maybe next month!
Master overview of CBD and anxiety pathways to look at various aspects we can directly affect.
Links to CBD and anxiety research with dozens of anxiety-specific topics.
Always work with a doctor or naturopath with any supplement!
The information provided here is not intended to treat an illness or substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified healthcare provider.