Curing Test Anxiety: A Little Neuroscience Can Go a Long Way

Look left: students are working. Look to the right: more of the same. Look up at the board: it’s still there. Okay. Get a hold of yourself. Back to the test booklet. Read the passage. Wait. What did I read? Read it again. Blank. Look left. Look Right. Back to the board. Repeat.

This is the ritual of one of my students who struggles with test-anxiety. When the anxiety switches on, she begins this cycle. And when she begins this loop, her hopes of a good score, the payoff for all the hard work she’s put in, slowly fade away.

Test-anxiety is real. And its effects can be debilitating. One of my former SAT students, so concerned about hitting the score she needed to win the scholarship that would pay for college, had run crying out of three consecutive SAT tests before she came to work with us. One of my GMAT students was able to keep his cool on the semi-pro golf circuit and could focus on sinking the winning putt, but would go into a negative spiral and throw away everything he had learned when he hit a rough patch of problems on the GMAT.

Over the last 11 years of tutoring, I have reached deep into my bag of counseling tricks to help my students who were struggling with test-anxiety. My first pass is usually cognitive-behavioral: what are the thoughts feeding the emotions that inform the physical reaction in the testing room? I hunt for the negative self-messages the students are feeding themselves. We mine for the potent images of failure that become stimulated in that stressful environment. We tap into a little positive psychology: are the students using their imagination in the service of their goals? Do they have a success-approach orientation or a failure-avoidant orientation? We’ll often do some cognitive rehearsal: eyes closed, breathing slowed, activating the mind, playing out a successful testing experience, activating the senses, laying down a new neural pathway to be accessed later.

Last week I tried something completely different. I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite neuropsychology authors, Daniel J. Siegel, MD, whose most recent book, Mindsight, was quite a revelation for me. Siegel explores how focused attention on your own thinking, AKA metacognition, can facilitate the “rewiring” of your brain. Focused attention facilitates neuroplasticity (shifting neural connections) and even neurogenesis (building brand new neurons). Siegel shows that once clients understand how their brains and neurochemistry function, they can become more skilled at self-regulating their own brain activity. By providing a functional model of the brain in an accessible form, Siegel teaches his patients to monitor and regulate their thoughts and neurochemical reactions. Why wouldn’t this work with SAT students?

I recently worked with a young woman who had been suffering from test-anxiety with a history of underperformance on high-stakes tests. She was getting ready for the SAT. I asked her to explain to me, in great detail, how anxiety manifested, when it manifested, what its exact triggers were, and what her emotional and physical responses were. As she spoke, I began mapping things out on notebook paper, trying to capture the sequence. My student hums along for the first part of a section until she hits a challenging problem, a “speed bump” where she is not sure what a question is asking or what a concept means. Even a single foreign word can be the catalyst that triggers the “Uh-oh” moment.

As I graphed out her experience, I overlaid a model of what was taking place inside her brain and body. I drew a little picture of her brain and drew in the little almond-shaped amygdala, the part responsible for evaluating threats and hormonally kicking things into high gear when danger is near. I told her that it is her amygdala that shouts out: Danger! Threat!

Borrowing heavily from Robert Sapolsky, I explained how and why the amygdala kick-starts the stress response. That little almond was wonderfully effective at keeping us alive when we saw a lion approaching on the savannah, and we had to fight or flee or freeze to stay alive. When the stress-response begins, adrenaline shoots up. Cortisol shoots up. Breathing gets more shallow. Skin tension shifts. Blood flows to the big muscles (to help us run or fight) and away from the skin so we won’t bleed as readily if we are wounded. And, most importantly for my student, with all that cortisol (stress hormone) and adrenaline in the system, working memory is greatly compromised!

When my student hits one of her “speed bumps,” her body acts as if it’s seen a lion. In that high-anxiety state, when she tries to read the passage, she goes blank. She reads it again: nothing. Her once functioning working-memory is now out to lunch! I explained to my student, as Siegel explained to his clients, that the only way to short-circuit this cycle is to mentally “step up” a level, and go to the “mental balcony.” From here, she can look down at this whole stress response unfolding. Oh look, that’s me getting stressed. Yep. That’s my pattern. Left, Right, Board, Blank. I’m cycling. This is the metacognition phase, when you recognize that you’re “in the cycle” and establish some mental distance from the whole experience.

Using our little brain map, I explained to her that once we have gone up a level, to that mental balcony, we have shifted our brain activity forward to the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, the conductor, can “talk” to the amygdala and help calm it down. It sends some GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) AKA “gabba-goo” back to the amygdala to tell it, “Relax, there’s no lion. There’s no immediate threat or danger here. It’s going to be okay.” I made a physical motion, petting my own hand, as if to say “calm down, relax.” Once the prefrontal cortex sends the “gabba goo” back to the amygdala, it decreases cortisol and adrenaline production, relaxes the body, and brings working memory back online. Now, she’ll be able to focus again!

We spent some time reinforcing this sequence through visualizations and guided imagery. Eyes closed, she visualized herself taking the test, hitting the speed bump, feeling all the physical symptoms of the stress response, putting down her pencil and going up a level. She said, “now it’s time to pet the fear-almond and tell it that everything’s going to be okay.” I told her, “You got it!”

And I believe she really did get it. She also told me she’d be able to use this same strategy for an interview she had coming up. I hope she reinforces this again and again until it becomes second-nature. Why not nip anxiety in the bud for domains well-beyond test-taking?

Though I have to wait another week for SAT scores to come out, I am confident my student will have her personal best score. I know that when students learn about how their minds work, it’s an empowering experience. A whiff of neuroscience may be the key ingredient in helping students overcome test-anxiety and other obstacles in their lives.


Update (June 6, 2013):  I’m happy to report that, through tutoring, this student was able to raise her SAT score a total of 320 points.  She will be entering her top-choice school as a freshman in the Fall.  For more information about test anxiety and strategies our tutors have found helpful with their students, check out the presentation from my speech at the IECA’s conference this past November. 

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