The February 11, 2013 issue of Time magazine included an insightful article by Annie Murphy Paul, “Relax, It’s Only a Test” which focused on the anxiety many students experience when they must take a test. Ms. Paul reviewed several effective ways of reducing anxiety, and this blog expands on the topic by considering the basic problem of how and why test anxiety occurs in the first place…and what to do about it.
The article begins with the premise: “As any parent or teacher knows, tests can create crippling anxiety in students…” More specifically, is not the test itself that creates anxiety, but the student’s mindset, his/her subconscious basic beliefs, that is the problem. This is an important distinction in that it allows shifting the focus from the symptom (anxiety) to the cause (triggered basic beliefs). This change in perspective opens the door to interventions that are effective and long lasting.
There are many subconscious basic beliefs a student might hold that result in test anxiety. For example, “If I don’t pass this exam, my parents will be disappointed in me.” “It will prove that I am stupid.” “I will not advance to the next grade.” “All my friends who pass the test will tease me.” “My life will be ruined.” Regardless of whether or not these beliefs are valid, any one of them is more than sufficient to trigger anxiety and hijack the thinking brain, thus compromising the student’s ability to think rationally and access whatever knowledge base they actually possess. Test performance suffers unnecessarily as a result.
For lasting success, parents, teachers and students all need to understand the process of anxiety. Briefly, this means that prior to experiencing anxiety, there is a conflict between a subconscious basic belief (“I must do well on this exam.”) and a stressor (anticipating poor test performance). This conflict is perceived as a threat which in turn triggers anxiety (nervousness, frustration, anger, crying) and initiates a defense mechanism (avoidance, for instance). Any basic belief that results in unnecessarily poor performance compromises the student’s mental health.
This scenario is preventable when parents and teachers help cultivate a positive mindset in the student long before the testing occasion arises. This would include such concepts as, “My human dignity will remain intact regardless of the test results.” “This test provides an opportunity for me to gain a sense of accomplishment.” “I will continue to have the support of my parents and teachers regardless of the outcome.” It is important for the student to believe the positive affirmations and not simply make them as a statement while continuing to believe the exact opposite.
While simple, this is not always easy. The student’s subconscious feeling brain believes that the negative concepts are true, and thus must be defended rather than changed or altered. However, with understanding and sufficient motivation, change is always possible. The earlier a student becomes aware of and accepts positive beliefs, the better since test taking will be a constant throughout the academic years.
Students who have not prevented test taking anxiety will face the task of reducing it any time it occurs prior to, or even during, the test. Since anxiety results from the perception of a threat, an effective way of reducing it in the short run is to avoid perceiving a threat by thinking about something neutral or pleasant. One simple but effective way of doing this is to breathe deeply and focus on the temperature of the air while inhaling and exhaling. Is the air cooler on the way in or out? Focusing on the answer and nothing else is the key to short term anxiety reduction. Note that any thought that does not challenge a basic belief would be equally effective.
The reason this technique is effective is purely physiological. A triggered basic belief (a negative thought, whether conscious or subconscious) causes the release of adrenaline, which is experienced as anxiety, and this continues as long as the student dwells on the negative concept. However, by shifting to a neutral or pleasant thought, adrenaline is no longer released and the amount that is already in the bloodstream will be metabolized/removed in just a few minutes. Ergo! No more anxiety! Peak performance restored!
Students contribute to their overall mental health by being aware of how to prevent unnecessary anxiety and reduce unavoidable anxiety in any life situation, well beyond test taking.
Mental health awareness! A concept whose time has come!
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