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Overcoming Test Anxiety

— American School Counselor Association
Updated on Jan 25, 2012

Test anxiety is almost universal. In fact, it is unusual to find a student who doesn't approach a big test without a high level of anxiety. Test anxiety can cause a host of problems in students, such as upset stomach, headache, loss of focus, fear, irritability, anger and even depression. New research is helping to better define how emotional stress and anxiety affect learning and academic performance.

Stressful emotions can inhibit a student's ability to absorb, retain and recall information. Anxiety creates a kind of "noise" or "mental static" in the brain that blocks our ability to retrieve what's stored in memory and also greatly impairs our ability to comprehend and reason. The key to understanding how anxiety inhibits cognitive and physical performance lies in understanding how emotions affect the rhythmic activity in the nervous system.

Feelings such as frustration, fear, anger and anxiety cause the neural activity in the two branches of the autonomic nervous system to get out of sync. This, in turn, affects the synchronized activity in the brain, disrupting our ability to think clearly. On the other hand, uplifting feelings such as appreciation lead to increased harmony and synchronization in the brain and nervous system, which facilitates our ability to think more clearly.

Research has shown that providing students with tools and strategies that build both emotional skills and healthy physical habits when preparing for a test can help them overcome test anxiety and the associated symptoms, while improving their ability to prepare for and perform on critical testing. It's important to help students identify what they are feeling and give them tools that will help them learn to manage emotions such as anxiety, self-doubt, anger or frustration. The proper physical habits enable students to have enough energy and stamina for their brain to do its job of thinking and analyzing for a sustained period of time.

Here are a few tips from the Institute of HeartMath based on its TestEdgeTM programs. Share these with your children ahead of time to better prepare them emotionally and physically for test taking.

Tips for Students

Practice the neutral tool: When you have uncomfortable feelings about whether you will do well on the test, practice the neutral tool. Its important to catch negative mind loops that reinforce self-doubt or uncomfortable feelings. Every time you catch a negative thought repeating itself, stop the loop and practice going to neutral. Start by focusing on the area around your heart. This helps to take the focus off the mind loop. Then breathe deeply. Breathe as if your breath is flowing in and out through the center of your chest. Breathe quietly and naturally, four-five seconds on the in-breath, and four-five seconds on the out-breath. While youre breathing, try and find an attitude of calmness about the situation. Do this in the days leading up to the test, right before and during the test.

Address the what-if questions: A lot of times before we have to do something like take a test, much of the anxiety we feel is a build-up from negative "what-if" thoughts. What if I fail, what if I can't remember anything, or what if I run out of time. Try writing a what-if question that is positive and can help you take the big deal out of the situation and begin to see things in a different way. Examples of these kinds of questions are, "What if I can remember more than I think I can?" "What if I can feel calmer than I think I can?"

Think good thoughts: Science is showing that good feelings like appreciation can actually help your brain work better. When you feel nervous or anxious, try this. You can do it as many times as you need to or want to. Remember something that nakes you feel good. Maybe it is your pet or how you felt when you got a big hug from your mom, or how you felt after a super fun day at the amusement park with your friends. After you remember how you felt, hold that feeling. Pretend you are holding it in your heart. Let yourself feel that feeling for 10-20 seconds or more. Its important to let yourself really feel that good feeling all over again. Practice this tool right before the big test.

Get enough sleep: Big tests require a lot of energy and stamina to be able to focus for several hours. Make sure you get at least eight-10 hours of sleep the night before the test.

Have fun: Do something fun the night before to take your mind off the test, like see a movie, play a board game with your family or participate in a sports activity. That way your mind and emotions are more relaxed in the time leading up to the test.

Eat a hearty breakfast: The brain needs a lot of energy to maintain focus on a big test for several hours. Eat a hearty and healthy breakfast, including complex carbohydrates and protein to make your energy last as long as possible. Foods such as eggs, cereal and whole-wheat toast help energize your brain to think more clearly and much longer compared with the fast-disappearing bolt of energy from drinking a soda pop or eating a cookie for breakfast. For a snack food, bring simple foods such as peanut butter and crackers, cheese and crackers or a burrito to sustain energy until lunch.

Practicing these tools in advance of and during a test can help students limit test anxiety and perform even better on their school work.

This material has been provided by the Institute of HeartMath, a nonprofit research and education organization specializing in research on how stress and emotions impact learning and performance. To learn more about the TestEdgeTM; programs and tools for enhancing academic performance visit www.heartmath.org.

For More Information

Family Education Network www.familyeducation.com/article/0,1120,66-2127,00.html

The American Institute of Stress www.stress.org

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