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The Art of Performance: Preparations, breathing exercises fight test-taking anxiety

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By Dr. Keith Wilson

Virtually everyone has some type of emotional reaction concerning taking tests. Tests are important. They produce a record of knowledge. They provide an entrance to a new program or confirm to the world you have the knowledge to be licensed in your professional field. The higher the stakes of the test, usually the higher the test anxiety.

Test anxiety is manifested in many different ways. For many people test anxiety is a physiological response. Symptoms of test anxiety include racing heart, shallow breathing, tight stomach and sweaty hands. Most importantly, when the body is activated in this way it changes the cognitive function. Anxiety takes away what you know.

One can be highly prepared for a test, but when test anxiety kicks in, easy information often is forgotten. This is quite irritating when one has prepared well and then performs poorly on the test. After test results are in, a test taker with performance anxiety does not have a good explanation for poor test performance.

Fortunately one is not helpless in the face of test anxiety. There are several strategies to use to reduce or contain test anxiety.

First are preparation strategies. Try to study in an environment that is most similar to the environment where the test is being taken. If the test is being taken in a classroom, then it is best to study in a well lit room where the chairs and desks are similar to the test environment. This helps the brain match the level of activation that will be expected at the test site. It is hard to believe anyone would ever take an important test where the environment to be emulated would require lying on a bed and reading. People who study on beds have a difficult time recalling information for their important test. Studying in a similar environment is well worth the focus it takes to study in a good environment.

Second, a breathing strategy is also a good study/performance tool. Using diaphragmatic breathing while taking a test can slow the heart rate and help a test taker stay more focused. This is a simple yet powerful skill. The diaphragm is key to this breathing exercise. The diaphragm is located below the rib cage. You can tell the diaphragm is being used by putting your hand on your stomach and breathing in. The chest will expand if one is doing chest breathing instead of diaphragmatic breathing.

The great advantage of diaphragmatic breathing is that the exhale can be controlled in a significant way. This is the skill that trumpet players or woodwind players use to control their breathing. It is very effective and will make it possible to exhale in a rhythmic way, which slows the heart beat. When the heart beat slows, it is a counter experience to anxiety. When the physical components of anxiety are contained, anxiety will not be such a problem to the test performance. This skill sounds easy, and it is. However for it to be effective it must be practiced on a regular basis.

To be effective in containing test anxiety it is important to be very intentional in using containment strategies. The intentional planning and execution of anxiety interventions will enhance their success. Every test taker has a choice. They can hope for the best before each test or they can be intentional and create a personal anxiety containment strategy that will help reduce anxiety and improve test results.

Dr. Keith Wilson is a performance consultant in Hardin County and owner of The Wilson Center for Performance. He is performance anxiety consultant to the Hardin County Schools Performing Arts Center. He can be reached at TheWilsonCenter7@aol.com. His column appears the second and fifth Monday of the month.