Check out the podcast: where Ethan interviews Jed Applerouth, the author of this post, and outlines each of the 25 ways to reduce testing anxiety one at a time.
Why are we talking about anxiety in the first place?
The 2014 National College Health Assessment found that 54% of all college students report feeling overwhelming anxiety, up from 46.4% in 2012.
61% of high school students reported suffering from test anxiety at least some of the time, as many as one-quarter (26%) were afflicted ‘‘almost always.’’
Test anxiety is becoming increasingly common: Research reveals an increasing trend in test anxiety over time, potentially as a result of the increase in testing and testing requirements in U.S. schools. Test anxiety is more prevalent in later grades.
Students with disabilities, gifted students, and females tend to experience higher rates of test anxiety. Test anxiety contributes to the gender gap in mathematics on tests like the SAT (Anxiety, Stress, & Coping (2011). University of Florida research).
Test anxiety can affect performance, squeeze out cognitive capacity, overwhelm working memory, and create a cascade of physical symptoms.
Potential confounding factors include processing speed deficits, skill deficits, learning differences.
25 Practical Ways to Reduce Test Anxiety
Normalize test anxiety: Share with your student that test anxiety is remarkably common, that over 60% of students report experiencing test anxiety at some point, and over 25% report experiencing it regularly.
Identify the source of the anxiety: In many cases students are internalizing anxiety from an outside source and making it their own. Sometimes parental anxiety can manifest as student anxiety. In cases such as these it can be helpful for parents to remove some of their attention from the testing process and outcomes by hovering less and giving the student more space. Taking external pressure off of the student can help decrease the student’s anxiety.
Learn a little about your biology and neurochemistry: Students who understand how anxiety functions in the brain and in the body will have an edge on self-regulation. Students should understand the amygdala’s primary function, how it spots threats and activates stress hormones to rally the body’s defenses. Students who understand how stress hormones affect the body and mind will be able to quickly identify the earliest signs of anxiety and begin to use interventions to regain their center.
Draw from other domains of competence: Students should adopt a strengths-based approach, examining other areas of their life where they’ve been able to effectively regulate anxiety and stress. What works for you that you can borrow and bring to testing? How do you manage stress before a sporting event or performance? What techniques already work for you? Let’s import those and put them to work.
Accentuate self-care: How do you nurture and take care of yourself? We all have things that make us feel good and relaxed, whether it’s a warm bath, a favorite meal, soothing music, playing with a pet, or talking with a supportive ally. Do things that help you center yourself and calm your mind.
Write about your test anxiety: Researchers have found that taking 10 minutes to write expressively about your anxiety and how it affects you can help reduce test anxiety and boost performance on tests.
Reappraise your arousal: Reframe the physical symptoms in a more positive light: Researchers have found that telling students that physiological responses often associated with anxious reactions (e.g. sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat) are beneficial for thinking and reasoning can significantly improve performance on high stakes tests! Don’t sweat the sweaty palms: a little boost in cortisol and norepinephrine can help you focus and do better when it counts.
Build upon small successes: The key to building your competency beliefs and creating future success is to have mastery experiences. Example: "If you can master these five problems, we can build on that and move on to the next problem set." When a student achieves mastery over a limited set of problems/challenges, it’s essential to focus the student’s attention on what specifically he/she did in order to achieve the mastery result. Focus on your actions and behaviors and the connection between those behaviors and positive outcomes. You can build upon your smaller successes to enable the greater ones.
Focus on your self-talk and inner dialogue: Anxiety is sustained by inner dialogue. Our self-messaging is fundamental. When your inner critic is serving up a plate of harsh self-criticisms, consider this as simply another mental activity for you to notice, rather than as something fundamental about you. You can label these critical thoughts “judging, judging” or “doubting, doubting.” Or you can directly counter and challenge the inner critic. “Hey, play nice.” Never let negative self-talk run unchecked.
Correct maladaptive self-talk: Be very careful about reinforcing negative self-beliefs. Don’t run around telling people, “I’m bad at test taking.” If you reinforce that message, something inside is listening, taking note. That thought can eventually become a thing, an obstacle, that will affect how hard you try when you encounter a challenging problem or test-section. Never make global, self-limiting statements to yourself or to others. Practice self-kindness and compassion with your self-talk.
Use “You-Statements” to bolster confidence: Build yourself up on the inside by making supportive second-person “You” statements. Researchers have discovered the efficacy of “you” statements over “I” statements. Coach yourself: “Sam, you can do this, you’ve got this, you’ve studied hard for this.” Establishing the cognitive distance, the separation between your little ego and your supportive external voice. It makes a difference.
Externalize the Anxiety Monster: If your critical/anxious voice is running wild on the inside, it may help to personify the negativity and give it a form, give it a name. “Oh, Worry Beast, there you are again. I knew you were going to show up here!” “Murray, you worry wart, of course you want to get into the action and show up during my ACT. But you need to leave for a while. We can talk later.” By naming the monster, you can help tame the monster. Creating some cognitive distance from the anxious thoughts allows you to achieve a measure of control over them.
Imagined practice makes perfect: If you have had many experiences of anxiety during tests, it may help to visualize yourself taking a test without suffering the effects of anxiety. It’s a practice known as cognitive rehearsal, or guided imagery, taking a mental walk-through in advance of a performance event. Athletes do it all the time, imagining themselves performing at their peak level, in advance of the high-stakes event. Imagine yourself walking through the test, missing problems and staying calm and centered: Lay down a new template of you as a peak-tester, and make the images as vivid and sensorily rich as possible, so your mind believes them. Imagined practice can be as powerful as actual practice.
Regulate your breathing: Deep diaphragmatic breathing is a powerful anxiety-reducing technique because it activates the body’s relaxation response. Breathing from the diaphragm, in a slow measured way, filling the stomach then the chest, stimulates the vagus nerve, which controls the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system. Stimulating the vagus nerve leads to a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure and other sympathetic responses. Practice breathing deeply and consciously, multiple times per day, and this technique will be available to you on test day.
Imagine you are breathing into your heart center: There’s a simple technique I use when I’m nervous, where I place my hand over my heart, and take deep breaths, focusing my energy on my heart. This is a technique I learned from an organization called Heartmath. The act of combining slow breathing, a nurturing gesture, and redirecting my consciousness to my heart, helps restore a sense of calm. This is a simple technique to employ for a few breaths during a test.
Use the body to help ground anxiety: Exercise is a natural anxiety reliever. Research shows that as little as 30 minutes of exercise three to five times a week can provide significant anxiety relief. Exercise is protective in that it boosts endorphins and neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which may reduce symptoms of depression and elevate mood; it also suppresses the release of the stress hormone cortisol.
Use holistic relaxation: You can help lower anxiety by learning to relax your body. One technique involves progressive muscle relaxation. Tire each muscle, tensing it as hard as possible for up to 10 seconds before releasing and letting it rest. Progress from your right foot to your left all the way up the body, one muscle at a time. You will relax your body, and your mind will follow.
Get enough sleep: Sleep is key to reducing anxiety. Sleep helps to heal the brain, clean out toxins and waste products, process memories and regulate emotions. You may notice that you are edgier when you are sleep-deprived. If you focus on healthy sleep hygiene, this can help reduce anxiety. Be sure to get a restful night sleep the Thursday and Friday preceding a test day. Eight hours a night is optimal.
Attend to your body’s posture: Your body’s posture affects anxiety! The brain is listening to the body, so be attentive to the physical state of your body. If you furrow your brow, frown, and clench your fists, your external physical form can affect your inner state. Likewise a relaxed, open posture can affect your inner emotional state. Practice sitting in a relaxed, calm, open manner to create that same inner landscape.
Try tapping: One technique that has worked for some students is called tapping or the Emotional Freedom Technique. This is a super simple process, involve tapping a series of points on your body in a particular sequence: 1. Eyebrow 2. Side of eye 3. Under eye 4. Under nose 5. Chin 6. Collarbone 7. Under arm 8. Top of head. Tapping somehow has an effect in anxiety reduction and has been shown to help people with PTSD and anxiety disorders. It’s simple and free; it takes a few seconds and may be helpful.
Ground yourself in nature: Getting out into nature can help lower levels of anxiety. A quick walk in the woods can change activation patterns in the brain and lower rumination and focus on negative emotions. Another study found that teenagers exposed to water fountain sounds at the dentist’s office experienced reductions in anxiety levels! Emotional regulation increases when we are more connected to nature.
Ground yourself through human connections: Relationships and human connections can dampen your biological response to stress. Our human connections can stimulate the release of oxytocin, a hormone which helps regulate anxiety by decreasing our levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Oxytocin appears to make the amygdala less reactive to fearful stimuli and may ultimately be used in treating anxiety disorders.
Use centering physical objects: Having a centering stone or other grounding device can help regulate anxiety levels. This is a simple technique to have a physical object in your pocket that you can hold if you are feeling nervous.
Use centering mental images or wisdom figures: Carl Jung explored the grounding effects of accessing archetypal centering figures. When our little self is feeling scared and insecure, we can turn inwardly to a more developed aspect of our self, an inner spiritual or religious figure to help us to recenter and ground our anxiety. Evoking that centering energy within can help.
Practice taking tests in conditions which replicate the test environment: Recreate, as best as possible, the anxiety-inducing condition during practice. If you are learning how to self-regulate your emotions and manage your anxiety, it’s important you practice your techniques in a public setting, rather than in the relative tranquility of your bedroom or home. If being in a big testing room stimulates anxiety, you must practice your tests in a similar condition.
Mindfulness/meditation: This was our bonus strategy on the podcast. Meditation is all about self-regulation. Meditation can help you learn to calm yourself down and find your center, to learn to watch yourself from an observer’s perspective and learn how your mind responds to situations. If you practice meditation, and learn to observe your thoughts and reactions with composure, you will strengthen your self-regulation skills and be able to stay calm in a variety of conditions.
So what should students do with all this?
There are so many applications here, which apply to numerous areas of education and life. Self-regulation is essential. We will all face stressful situations in a great many contexts. The ability to self-regulate one’s emotional state is a gift that keeps on giving. Students can learn to take self-regulation strategies from one area of life and see if they can apply them to other areas. Get creative. Find out what works. Practice and get better and better at bringing yourself back to calm, to optimize performance and happiness.
Jed Applerouth is the founder and CEO of Applerouth Tutoring Services, an education services company with offices in major metropolitan areas across the country. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Georgia State University, Jed is a Nationally Certified Counselor with a PhD in Educational Psychology. A published educational researcher, Jed has investigated facets of student cognition, memory, motivation, and learning strategies to enhance the pedagogy of his team of educators. Since 2001 Jed has lectured extensively across the country at national conferences and high schools on topics ranging from test test anxiety to academic motivation. Outside of work, Jed is an avid landscape painter and photographer and serves on the board of the therapeutic STAR foundation.