Does your child come home from school and say that he forgot or could not remember important test information that you know he studied the previous night? He may say that shortly after the test, he started to remember what he had studied, but by then, it was too late! This is a perfect example of test anxiety. We have all been anxious about taking a test, but why do some kids have such a hard time recalling the information? Their anxiety has to do with the “fight or flight response”. Think about a time when you were very anxious, then think about a situation in which you were very relaxed. It is easy to feel how those two states create very different outcomes for both our mental and physical health. They also have a direct effect on our memory. Let’s take a look at how that works.
The term “fight or flight” describes our body’s automatic response when it perceives danger in our environment. It is a survival mechanism that prepares us to run, fight, or freeze in place to protect ourselves. Imagine that you are strolling through the woods and suddenly come upon a very large bear. In an instant, your adrenalin starts pumping and blood quickly leaves your major organs to rush into your extremities so that you can run or fight. One of those major organs losing blood is your brain. It instantly provides at least 50% of its blood supply to the arms and legs. With that blood loss, your usual high level of brain power is diminished, and you do not have the resources to ponder, decide, or debate about what to do in your predicament.
So what does this have to do with test taking? The student who is experiencing test anxiety is experiencing the automatic fight or flight response. But what is the threat in that environment? Generally, it is an internal dialog that is created by the child when he thinks about the test. The most common thought is something like, “I need to get a good grade on this test”. Whenever we think that we “need” something, our subconscious mind puts that desire into the same category as needing water, food, shelter, or safety for survival. It sounds the alarm and the fight or flight response is triggered. The way to eliminate the text anxiety, then, is to teach the child to go into a relaxation response instead of the survival response. Let’s break this down into steps.
After I explain the fight or flight response to a student, I discover his unique internal process in order to know exactly what triggers his anxiety response. I ask him to close his eyes and think back to the last time he experienced this anxiety. Then I ask him to tell me, step by step, what happened. For example, he might say, “I walked into the classroom and sat down. I remembered my dad saying that I had to get a good grade or I wouldn’t be allowed to play sports. I started thinking, I really need to ace this one”, and so on. The words he was hearing just before the anxiety set in are the key. Once the phrase is identified, I have the student repeat it several times, and notice (or ask) if that increases his anxiety. Once we are sure of the anxiety-provoking phrase, I have the student repeat it ten times, but replace the word “need” with the word “want”. Why this change? Because “I want to ace this test” will not trigger the survival-mode, fight or flight response. To be sure, I ask the child if he feels anxious, or notices any tenseness in his body as he repeats the new phrase.
Next, I ask the student to tell me about an activity he loves to do, and to give me some examples of the positive thoughts and phrases he experiences while doing it. For example, a guy who loves to play baseball might think, “I love being on this field”, “I’m really good at this”, and “I’m going to hit it out of the park!”. I then have him close his eyes and think of the test-taking scenario again. But this time, I instruct him to image himself saying the positive phrases. For example, I ask him to imagine that he walks into the classroom, sits down, remembers his dad saying he had to get a good grade, then he says to himself, “I love this”, “I’m going to hit it out of the park!”, and “I’m really good at this and am going to remember everything I studied!”. I then ask him to imagine the rest of the school year, and to hear himself saying the positive phrases each time he sits down to take a test. Then, I ask him to look into the future and see what grades he is getting on each test. Because the fight or flight response is not triggered, every student will see himself acing tests and getting high marks. Finally, I have him write down the new positive phrases on an index card, which he can read just before taking a test. This is a great tool to ensure that none of the anxiety-provoking phrases slip back in.
In my next blog, I will share with you what other words and phrases we should eliminate from our vocabulary because they trigger the flight or fight response.