Feeling worried about your next test day? First of all, know that you're not alone. Test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety, and everyone struggles with some degree of anxiety throughout life -- but there are ways to relax and prepare for test day.
To get some professional insight and practical advice on dealing with test anxiety, College Confidential sat down with Hilary Jackendoff, a Los Angeles-based meditation teacher and test anxiety specialist who runs MeditationChick.com and provides Zen Test Prep workshops and private lessons to students.
Q: What should students know about test anxiety? Is there any good news?
A: Think of stress like mental cholesterol. There’s good stress and there’s bad stress, and we need to learn to accept a little of the bad, seek out more of the good, and most importantly, learn to distinguish between them. When we take a test or give a speech, pitch in a big game or play the piano in front of an audience -- whether our stress is real or imagined, our brain chemically responds. Fight or flight. The stress response kicks in. Our brain pumps blood to our muscles and gives the body a shot of adrenaline followed by a shot of cortisol to get us into prime fighting, or running, condition. Our palms sweat, cooling our body temperature, and, if you can believe it, making us more slippery if we need to slither out of an enemy’s grasp. The digestive and urinary systems slow down so we don’t have to stop to pee. Our mouths get dry, and our breath gets shallow so we can take in oxygen more quickly and react more efficiently. This is all normal!
In the early 1900s, Harvard psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson found that our performance increases with physiological or mental stress -- but only up to a point. When levels of anxiety become too high, our performance takes a nosedive. Stress and anxiety don’t cause us to choose wrong answers. At first, they help us to focus, heightening our senses. But once a threshold is reached, a whole series of physical and emotional processes kick in. Which is why it's important to keep that stress in check.
Q: What are some of your recommendations to help students stay calm and reduce test anxiety on the day of the test?
A: Here is my typical test day checklist, based largely on research and some anecdotal evidence:
Morning of the Test
1. Wake up early: Wake up 60 to 90 minutes before you have to leave the house. Assuming you got a decent night’s sleep, adrenaline will ensure that you’re not tired during the test, and you’ll have enough time to prepare properly.
2. Quick exercise: Get the stagnant blood flowing. Ideas: Do a few squats, jumping jacks, push-ups, yoga, walk the dog, a few laps in the pool, jog in place or just jump up and down. No need to break a sweat, but just get your heart pumping a bit.
3. Shower and breath work: While you’re in the shower, practice a couple simple breathing techniques. Using the breath is the simplest way to get yourself out of your head and into your body. As you shower (hot or cold!) and wake up, take ten deep breaths. For each breath, count to five as you slowly breathe in, hold each breath for five seconds, and then slowly breathe out, again, counting to five as you exhale. There’s no magic to the number five, or to ten breaths; it’s arbitrary. If five seconds feels too long, three seconds is fine. It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re focused on your breath. The idea is to simply focus on your breathing rather than thinking about this test.
4. Healthy breakfast: Eat a healthy breakfast that will keep you full for most of the test. Bring snacks like a piece of fruit or a bag of almonds in case you find yourself getting hungry during the test. A blood sugar crash can cause brain fog and irritability, but this is easily preventable.
5. Tense and release: You can do this the night before the test, the morning of the test or during the test. You can do this in bed, on the floor, in the car or at your desk. Simply get comfortable, and then run through a full body scan, starting by tensing your feet and then relaxing them. Then move up the body. Try to isolate as many parts of your body as you can: Breathe in, tense the muscle, hold the contraction and the breath for three to five seconds or so, then release the contraction with a long exhalation. Ideally, you’ll feel your body releasing and softening more and more every time you exhale. This is a great thing to do again as you're sitting in your chair and waiting for the proctor to tell you to start the test. You’ll release a bit of tension, but the most important thing is to stay grounded in your body, keeping you from focusing entirely on your anxiety.
6. Performance journal: Studies have shown that expressive writing exercises can help significantly with test anxiety. Before you leave the house or get out of the car at the testing center, take five to 10 minutes to write a "performance journal" (use a notebook or sheet of paper). This exercise works in two ways. For most people, simply telling yourself to relax is not particularly effective. But by writing out (by hand) your specific worries on paper, you help your mind identify and then release a bit of that associated anxiety. Writing out the sources of your test anxiety can also free up working memory in your brain, helping you focus better during the test. This exercise can also serve as a motivating factor. After writing about what worries you, make sure to also spend some time focusing on the positive. Don’t write about how well you think you’ll do; instead, write about how well you have already done! Write about specific times you’ve succeeded at each section or even a single question that often trips you up. Write about exactly how that’s happened, whether it was going slowly, reading carefully or actively, writing out each step, etc.
During the Test
1. Sound scan: If you find yourself distracted by an external sound, like a foot tapping or a pencil clicking, instead of trying to ignore it, take 10 to 15 seconds to close your eyes and focus on it intently. Then, for another 10 to 15 seconds, scan the room for all the other sounds. Then refocus on your test.
2. Active doodling: Doodling activates the spatial side of your brain. If your mind is in a verbal place (left brain), you can just go over the words again and again and not process them. If your mind starts to wander and go to negative thoughts, focused doodling for 20 to 30 seconds can occupy it just enough to change your energy and state of mind.
3. Tense and release: If you feel yourself getting distracted or overwhelmed during the test, practice tensing and releasing your muscles. This helps get you out of your head and ground yourself in your body through your breath.
4. Focus on your breath: If you have any time between sections, make good use of it by taking some grounding, settling breaths. Take a deep breath in through your nose, and breathe out with a gentle, quiet sigh through your mouth. Practice making your breath smooth and relaxed. Just be sure you're not disturbing the people around you!
Q: How can a student learn relaxation techniques like meditation, breath work or yoga?
A: If you have no experience with this world, it’s best to start with simple breathing techniques or a beginner meditation. Finding the practices that work well for you might take some time, but be patient. Having even just one or two tools to help manage your mind will provide you with a lifetime of benefits.
Breathing: Sit down in a comfortable position, set a timer for five minutes on your phone (put it on airplane mode), stay as still as you can, and close your eyes. Breathe (relaxed abdominal breaths, not overly exaggerated) in through your nose, out through your mouth or out through your nose, whatever feels more comfortable. It might vary breath to breath, but that's okay. Count each inhalation and exhalation as one breath. If you reach ten, start again.
Yoga: Whether or not you've done yoga before, I recommend trying the “Warrior 3” pose. This pose involves standing on one foot, kicking your other leg back and bending your body forward so your upper body, arms and one leg are parallel to the ground. This might seem unrelated to standardized testing, but once you try this pose, you’ll find that regardless of your level of balance, it's all about focus. When you concentrate on one spot on the floor and focus on taking calm, even breaths, it gets easier. It still takes practice, but calm breathing is the key to balance. It’s also the key to focus, to calming ourselves down when we get stressed, and it’s a great habit to get into between every question on a big test.
Meditation: It's not about sitting perfectly still with a perfectly quiet mind. It’s simply a practice of being present, recognizing that your mind is not quiet and moving toward the goal of becoming more quiet or maybe becoming a little less frustrated by the noise.
There are a variety of fantastic free tools out there for anyone who is curious about managing test anxiety and training the mind. You can start practicing today with one of these free meditation and yoga apps: Headspace, Aura or Insight Timer (Tip: Try a Yoga Nidra, especially Yoga Nidra Deep Rest).
Q: Should students work on relaxation techniques regularly before the test?
A: Training your mind is like training your body -- one session with a personal trainer does not get you in shape. You’re only going to see results if you’re willing to put in the work. That said, if your body is horribly out of shape, even starting with a five-minute walk every day will help to build your stamina and confidence. The same is true with the mind. A little bit every day is going to show the best results. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day or two here and there -- we’re all busy. It helps to keep a journal, mark a calendar, just something to keep you honest and motivated. Ideally, you want to have plenty of time to play with different tools before the test and build up a bit of "stress management muscle memory" so you will be well equipped for test day.