With high stakes testing becoming the norm and not a once-yearly ordeal, an easy and effective strategy for managing test anxiety is a must. Whether it’s the ACT, the new SAT, college course placement, or even a quarterly math test, anxiety is the easiest way to negatively effect the score.
The Simple Psychology of Learning and Execution
When I first learned to ski, a grizzled instructor gave me sage advice: “Relax! Breathe deep, and focus on your feet. If you are scared of the ski slope, then you’ve already lost.” And the same ethos applies to testing! If you are anxious and scared, your body partially goes into a “fight or flight” response. When this happens, less blood is directed to your frontal cortex (which handles complex thought) and more blood is directed into your muscles (This is why a nervous person’s hands sweat!).
And more generally, when we become anxious, we also create a vicious psychological feedback loop; we are naturally geared to avoid things that induce anxiety, so the association of testing and anxiety can impair our ability to test well from the onset. Even when studying to improve our test-taking, the mere anxiety association can keep us from learning effectively.
A 5-Minute Method for Reducing Test Anxiety
When I was training for a marathon, I stumbled onto yoga as an effective way to help my body recover; I later realized that it was equally beneficial for the mind. Simply put, focusing on your breathing and the stretches keeps you from focusing on the “daily grind” and its associated anxiety; and even that brief mental reprieve from your worries can be beneficial long after the yoga class!
Some readers might worry that they aren’t flexible enough for yoga, but there are three simple poses that require no flexibility whatsoever while still conveying the psychological benefits. I have found that a mere 5 minutes of the following poses help to clear the mind and relax the body; this takes you out of the “fight or flight” response that can hurt your testing performance!
Do this sequence for a few minutes prior to a text or test preparation. Also, do the same sequence for five minutes after a test or a study session – this helps to break down the anxious associations between yourself and the test material!
Step 1: Cat/Cow Pose
We put so much daily strain on our backs through bad posture – doing this pose slowly for 3-4 iterations helps to stretch the upper and lower back and work out the kinks in your spine. Inhale slowly while arching your back upwards, then exhale slowly as you dip your stomach and raise your head to a level position.
Step 2: Child’s Pose
Just as we strain our backs far too regularly, we put more stress on our necks than we often realize! This pose helps to remove all weight from the neck and shoulders, and also relax the upper back. Fold your legs underneath your torso, and (carefully) lay your forehead on the ground. Then, depending on your preference, either pull your hands next to your feet, or fully extend your arms in front of your head. While doing so, feel free to slowly roll your neck to the left and right to release the tension in your neck muscles. Concentrate on your breathing as you do so, focusing only on the peace and stillness of your body.
Step 3 Savasana
Though it looks tame, Savasana pose can be the most mentally beneficial! Simply lay on your back, legs loose and spread, with your arms by your side and the palms facing upward. The goal of this pose is to be in a peaceful, meditative state – this is (more or less) the position in which you would sleep, so your body is naturally inclined to release the tension in your muscles. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing, all the while inhaling and exhaling both fully and deliberately.
Additionally, this simple pose sequence is a great way to start your morning!
But in short, anxiety can often be our greatest obstacle to optimal test performance. While many anxieties are not so easily dealt with, this simple procedure can be one of several steps to help you test at your best!
For some more resources on mitigating stress, have a look at this great article by our friends at Relax Like a Boss. Or, have a look at these cool guided meditation videos aimed at improving quality of sleep (another key component to testing well.) And, here is a very thorough list from Health Grinder that describes all sorts of ways to help prevent stress before is starts or alleviate it once it begins. Take it easy and enjoy!