Ace Your SHRM Certification Exam: Recognizing the Symptoms of Anxiety

By Matt Davis August 8, 2019

​Part 1: Learning How You Learn Best

Part 2: Recognizing the Symptoms of Anxiety

Part 3: What to Expect on Exam Day

Ace Your SHRM Certification Exam: Recognizing the Symptoms of Anxiety

An accessible new guidebook just published by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)Ace Your SHRM Certification Exam: A Guide to Success on the SHRM-CP® and SHRM-SCP® Exams, features expert tips and practice questions that demystify the tests and improve one's ability to understand and prepare for them. It was edited by SHRM's vice president of certification operations, Nancy A. Woolever, SHRM-SCP. 

The short, easy-to-use volume includes everything a candidate needs to know before taking either level of SHRM certification exam: best practices for studying, research-based advice for sharpening test-taking skills, proven strategies for managing pre-exam anxiety, tips from experts and certified professionals, detailed learning resources, answer keys for both exams, guides to exam structure, terminology and acronyms, plus more.  

Below is the second of three excerpts from this helpful publication. Use code ACE19 for an additional 20 percent off when you purchase it through the SHRMStore. Current SHRM credential-holders who read the book and pass a quiz will earn 3 professional development credits (PDCs) toward recertification.

If you've ever felt nervous or anxious before or during a test, you're not alone. Taking a test is a form of performance, and performers of all kinds, from professional actors and musicians to conference presenters, often feel the symptoms of performance anxiety or "stage fright."

Even though you don't have to stand up in front of people to take a professional test like the SHRM exam, you are being asked to demonstrate what you know. It's not uncommon for test-takers to worry that they won't be able to perform well. The higher the stakes, the greater the anxiety.

In fact, a little performance anxiety can be a good thing. It can increase your focus and concentration, helping you to do your best. But for some people, anxiety can lead to feelings of panic that result in what they most fear: failure.

The good news is that most test-takers experience only mild symptoms that they can manage easily by understanding what causes their anxiety and learning how to reduce it. Even if you have a history of performance anxiety, you'll find that the strategies in this section can help you manage your symptoms, so you can focus your attention where it belongs—on the exam.

The Symptoms of Test Anxiety

Test anxiety manifests itself in a variety of ways. The symptoms can vary considerably and range from mild to severe.

Most of us have felt at least some of these symptoms at one time or another. You can't concentrate and your mind races with negative thoughts: "I'll never be able to do this." "I'm not good enough." "I'm going to fail." You have trouble sleeping. You have "butterflies" in your stomach and feel a little nauseous; your mouth is dry and your hands are sweaty and shaking; your heart races.

Those symptoms have a physical basis: they come from what psychologists all the "fight or flight response." When faced by a real or imaginary threat, the body releases adrenaline to prepare itself to either fight or run away from the threat. That was very useful when we were threatened by predators in the wild. It's not so helpful to us today.

Test anxiety can also create a type of "noise" in your brain that makes it difficult to recall information from your memory. That noise can make it hard to understand test questions and to make reasoned judgments about which responses to select.

Where Test Anxiety Comes From

Why do some people experience little test anxiety, while others have so much anxiety they can hardly get through an exam? Here is some of what researchers found when they set out to find the sources of test anxiety:

  • Parents' expectations and extent of parental support. All parents have certain expectations for their children: they want their kids to be happy and do well. But you might feel more test anxiety when you're faced with a challenge if your parents had very high or unreasonable expectations for your achievement, and/or gave you little emotional support when you faced difficult situations as a child.
  • Schools' increased reliance on testing. Even though it's been a long time since you were in elementary and high school, your early learning experiences can affect the way you feel about tests. For example, you might continue to feel anxious about tests well into adulthood if your teachers focused more on testing than on learning and pressured you to do well on tests for which you were not adequately prepared.
  • A fear of failure. Test anxiety is a fear of not performing well, and it's normal to feel some level of performance anxiety. You might experience much higher levels if you lack confidence or have very high standards for yourself and care a lot about what people think of you.
  • A history of performing poorly on tests. It's a vicious cycle: you don't usually do well on tests, so you think you can't do well on tests, and, as a result, you actually don't do well on tests.
  • Being unprepared. There's no doubt about it: taking a high-stakes exam when you haven't prepared is a surefire recipe for anxiety.

Additional Online Resources


Matt Davis is manager of book publishing at SHRM.

For more information on SHRM Certification, and to register for the exam, please visit our website.

Already SHRM-certified? Be sure to maintain your credential by recertifying. Learn more about recertification activities here.



Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Search Jobs


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect

HR Daily Newsletter

News, trends and analysis, as well as breaking news alerts, to help HR professionals do their jobs better each business day.