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Just Breathe: Combating Test Anxiety with Mindfulness

We’ve all been there. Test anxiety. For many, it’s a three-edged sword: First comes distraction. Most people don’t seem to realize that those number 2 pencils make an audible noise when filling in the little circles on a scantron sheet. To some of us, it can be deafening. You start to look around the room. You stare out the window. You begin thinking about anything else that you’d rather be doing. Time elapses, and you realize you’ve barely started the test! That’s when the panic sets in. You begin to breathe hard. You can hear your heart beating in your chest. It’s even louder than the pencils! Then comes those negative thoughts. I can’t do this, you say to yourself. I’m just not cut out for school. I not one of those smart people. It’s so easy for them, but I’m always struggling. I’m just plain dumb!


Does this sound like you or someone you’ve worked with?


Test anxiety is a very real problem for millions of students, both adults, young adults, and school-aged kids. And testing has become a mainstay of our educational system. Funding bodies, school boards, administration, teachers, even other students all judge intelligence and achievement by those mean little bubbles! It’s just not fair!


But there is hope. In this article, we’re going to take a hard look at testing anxiety. First, we will explore what is behind those feelings of disconnection that lead our students and us into so much trouble. Next, we will see how those feelings of distraction, panic, and low self-esteem are all part of the phenomenon of disconnection. Finally, we will see how two simple mindfulness exercises can help us be Focused, Calm, and Confident enough to tackle any test. Testing anxiety is a real problem. Here is one good solution.


I first learned about the problem of Disconnection from Dr. Ben Bernstein in his book Crush Your Test Anxiety: How to Be Calm Confident and Focused on ANY Test. In this indispensable little tome, Bernstein introduces us to some of the science behind test anxiety. He presents three concepts in particular that are pertinent to what we’ll be talking about.


We’ve already described disconnection. It’s what happens in a scenario like what was described at the beginning of this article. For me, it happens like this: First, I disconnect from the task at hand. I become distracted. I zone out. I focus on anything but what I’m supposed to be doing. Then, I disconnect from my body when I realize how much time has elapsed and how little I’ve gotten done. I panic. I forget to breathe. My heart starts beating harder to compensate. (As we will see later, this is the perfect point for a mindful intervention, but for now, stay with me—don’t disconnect!) That’s when I disconnect from my mind. I forget the sound advice of Coptic Christianity’s Desert Fathers and fail to guard my mind. Thought distortions set in. And then I want to disconnect from them. I start to look around the room for distraction. The vicious cycle continues.


Stress like this can be a major obstacle to testing success. But not all stress is bad, which brings us to the second concept from Dr. Bernstein: The Zone of Optimal Functioning. Whole academic papers have been written on this subject, but let me briefly explain. We have seen how too much stress can lead to testing anxiety and the resulting low grades. But what about the opposite? Overconfidence can lead to careless mistakes and a laze-fare attitude toward essential details that may mean the difference between getting a question right and getting it wrong. To do well on a test, we want to stay somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. That is our Zome of Optimal Functioning. It is the point at which our stress is at the perfect level for peak performance.


To reach this point, Bernstein has a technique he likes to employ called the Three-Legged Stool. The greater part of his book (which I highly recommend) is devoted to exploring each of these three legs. Basically, the three legs are three qualities we cultivate to combat disconnection and reach our Zone of Optimal Functioning. By remaining focused, we avoid disconnecting from the task at hand. We cultivate Calm and Confidence to combat the disconnection of body and mind and do our very best.


So let’s go back to our nightmare testing scenario and the vicious cycle that keeps us locked in a downward spiral leading to poor performance or failure. We have disconnected from the task at hand, leading to panic, disconnection from the body, and thought distortions, disconnection from the mind. We have become mindless!


But there is hope. We know about Dr. Bernstein’s theories. We can see that we are disconnecting. That is when we employ mindfulness to reconnect with our body and through it to our mind. Using the energy of mindfulness we have cultivated, we reconnect to the task at hand. Do you recall your fast-beating heart? This is a clue from your body that something is wrong. Address it! When you feel panic set in, reconnect with your body by reconnecting with your breath.


First, exhale all the air from your lungs. Get it all out. Imagine that with it you are exhaling all the anxiety you were experiencing. Picture it as a dirty cloud of smoke billowing out of your mouth. Get it all out.


Now, inhale. Slowly. Through your nose. Begin to reconnect with your body. Pay attention to as many of the sensations of breathing as you can notice. Feel the air entering through the nostrils. Feel the way your nostrils get cool and feel soothed. Watch inwardly as the cool breath goes down past your throat and into your lungs. Feel your lungs expand. Feel the air being warmed by the heat of your body.


Now, purse your lips and blow out slowly. Let the hot air pass out of your body. Picture it as dirty smoke again. Picture all your anxieties being forced out of your body. Repeat 2 or 3 more times.


Now you are ready to reconnect with your mind. Find a short mantra or saying that gives your confidence. Something like: I can do this. I worked hard. I will do well on this test. I can do this. I worked hard. I can do well… Repeat it yourself silently for about a minute. This will combat those negative thought distortions and give you are a more accurate picture of who you are.


Finally, use the energy of mindfulness you have cultivated to focus on the task at hand. Remember every few minutes to reconnect with your breath, say your mantra, turn your focus back toward the test. And so on.


Congratulations! You have turned your vicious cycle of disconnection into a virtuous cycle of mindfulness! By cultivating mindfulness through these two simple mindfulness techniques, you have defeated test anxiety. You have increased your Calm, Confidence, and Focus and reached your Zone of Optimal Success. So give yourself a pat on the back. You’ll do well. You’ve got this. You worked hard. You can do well on any test. Any test at all.


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