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What’s the “Anxiety” in “Test Anxiety”?

Let’s stop training students to run away from challenging situations.

Key points

  • Most test-takers are in a “fight-or-flight” state.
  • Turning on the parasympathetic nervous system is the key to learning, memory, and thinking.
  • Learning how to face life’s tests calmly should be standard curriculum.

Jasmine is on my Zoom screen, and her session is about to begin. She is twirling her hair. As she starts talking, the rate and intensity of the twirling increases. “My psychology AP exam is on Friday,” she tells me, “And I’m freaked out about it. There’s so much material! I’ll never learn it all. What happens if I get a question I can’t answer? And if I don’t get a good grade, it’s going to mess up my college application.”

Past, Present, and Future

Jasmine has just enumerated the three-fold nature of “test anxiety”: past, present, and future. Past: I didn’t study enough. Present: I won’t be able to answer the questions. Future: A low score is going to be a disaster.

All of these have a common root: The word “anxiety” derives from the Latin cognate, angustus, meaning narrowing or constriction. In all three cases the “narrowing” or “constriction” describes what’s happening in Jasmine’s nervous system. Basically, the sympathetic branch—fight-or-flight—has switched on, her blood vessels have constricted, and her muscles have contracted as if she’s preparing to do battle or run away. This is exactly the opposite of what will be required of Jasmine when she’s taking the test: She’ll be sitting in a chair, reading and answering questions. Hard to do when her whole nervous system is screaming, Get me out of here!

To transform Jasmine’s test anxiety I trained her to turn on her parasympathetic nervous system.

Commonly known the “rest and digest” branch, the parasympathetic nervous system plays an important role in thinking and learning by promoting a state of relaxation and calmness that is conducive to cognitive functioning. When the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, it reduces stress and anxiety, which can help to improve focus, attention, and concentration. It also promotes the release of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is essential for learning and memory.

Breathing, Grounding, and Sensing

There are three simple tools for engaging the parasympathetic branch: breathing, grounding, and sensing. Breathing means a steady flow of inhale and exhale (more directed to the belly than the upper chest); grounding means feeling the chair and the floor supporting you; and sensing means turning on and tuning in to one or more of the five senses.

In more than 40 years of coaching test-takers, I have observed how often they hold their breath, how tense and ungrounded they are, and how unaware they are of feeling the touch of clothes on their own bodies. No wonder people are exhausted by the end of a long test! They’ve been fighting the most important requirement for taking the test: to be present. They just want to escape. When they use the three calming tools, they create the state necessary for sitting still, thinking, remembering, reasoning, and, ultimately, answering questions.

Students—and other test takers—need to practice using the calming tools while they are studying and taking practice tests or question samples. Practicing using the tools replaces the old habit (of constricting, tensing, and wanting to flee) with the new habit designed to stay calm and get the job done. I have seen students raise their SAT scores by 200 points, and ACT scores by 3 composite points, simply by regularizing their breathing through the course of the test!

We all face countless tests in everyday life. Unexpected, unwanted things happen to everyone. Wouldn’t it be a whole lot better—and wouldn’t we live a whole lot longer—if we faced the tests by being calm? In case you’re wondering, the answer is “Yes!”

But the real question is: Instead of amping students up through endless comparison and competition, why don’t we teach them how to stay calm?

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