I taught classes at Iowa State University and often found students who were very anxious about taking tests. Sometimes they would tell me their minds went blank during the test!
I found a similar problem with students in the public-speaking classes. 40% of my students were terrified when they gave their first speech. I developed an audiotaped program to help them and I believe that the same approach can work for test anxiety.
Lions and bears terrified our ancestors. Our ancestors’ minds and bodies gave them the strength to flee or fight. Modern tests are not going to kill and eat us, but how we perform on tests greatly affects our future. Our brain and our body try to help us overcome the threat of the test by increasing how fast our heart beats, how we breath, and how our sweat glands open.
If we sense a threat, the amygdala in our brain signals our interior organs to speed up to meet the challenge. Each of us has two separate nervous systems. Our “somatic” nervous system controls the exterior muscles in our legs and feet, stomach and chest, arms and hands, shoulders and neck, and face and head. We can train ourselves to be aware of this muscle tension in our exterior muscles and learn how to tense and relax those muscles. Relaxing the somatic muscles calms the brain.
If your exterior muscles become tense while preparing for the test and then taking the test, you can break that process into smaller parts. If you imagine those smaller parts while you relax your exterior muscles you can reduce the arousal. With several practice sessions you can retrain your brain to slow the speed of your internal muscles in your heart, lungs and sweat glands. This also calms your “autonomic” nervous system which controls these inner organs. When the autonomic nervous system slows these organs, you can concentrate on the test items and perform better on the test.
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