The Simple Way to Ease Test Anxiety and Lift Performance

The Proven Way to Ease Test Anxiety and Lift Performance

Anxiety has a way of showing up at the worst times. When it’s brought to life by a test or an exam, it can get in the way of performance regardless of how well the test material is understood.  Maths tests in particular can spark enormous anxiety, but a new study has found a way settle it down, improve performance and create lasting change by altering the brain’s fear circuits.

What are the symptoms of test anxiety?

If you’ve struggled with any sort of anxiety, you’ll be familiar with the signs. The symptoms can be physical (nausea, clamminess, short shallow breathing, racy heart) or psychological (memory loss, freezing, decreased confidence, avoidance, feeling isolated – like you’re the only one who feels this way).

How does anxiety interfere with performance?

Research has found that anxiety interferes with working memory, particularly when the task involves some sort of computation, such as maths. Reduced working memory means that there is less capacity to access existing knowledge and apply it to the problem at hand. This leads to longer reaction times and more errors, all of which compromise performance. 

And this is how to beat it …

It’s long been accepted that phobias and fears can be eased with safe exposure to whatever it is that’s causing the fear. Drawing on this, researchers explored whether exposure to maths would ease maths anxiety and improve test performance.

The study, published in the The Journal of Neuroscience, was conducted on 46 third grade children. At the beginning of the study, the children were assessed on their levels of anxiety and placed into either a high anxiety group or a low anxiety, depending on their scores.

Brain imaging showed that when children in the high anxiety group performed simple addition problems, the fear circuits in the brain and the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible that triggers an anxiety response) lit up.

Each child’s then participated in an 8 week one-to-one tutoring program,  consisting of 22 lessons of addition and subtraction. 

Following their 8 weeks of individual tutoring, all children performed better on the maths problems. By exposing children to more maths problems, their anxiety was reduced and their performance improved.

Those who started out the study with high anxiety showed a significant reduction in anxiety. Brain imaging showed that the activity in the fear circuits and amygdala were significantly reduced in those children. Those in the low anxiety group showed no change, which is not surprising given that they were already low on anxiety scores. 

Why is these findings so exciting?

The promise of this study is that tutoring can work on a physiological level to actually relieve anxiety long term. Teaching children the skills to manage anxiety is important, but if anxiety can be turned around on a physiological level, the way forward is easier and the effects will be more long lasting. 

Other ways to help alleviate maths anxiety:
  1. ‘Brains can grow stronger.’ Let that be the mantra. People who are good at maths aren’t generally born that way. They make their brain stronger and better at maths through hard work, effort and practice. Children and teens who believe brains can grow will likely work harder to reach their goals and will openly and willingly approach challenge. Children who don’t believe brains can change are less likely to persevere in the face of challenge or ask for support when it’s needed. Learning maths is like learning another language – with the right amount of time and effort, anyone can do it.
  2. Read through the test first before answering anything. This seems to have an effect on test anxiety, as the unpredictability of what’s to come is taken away. Precious mental resources can then applied to the task at hand, rather than consumed by worrying about what lies ahead.

Anxiety can be intrusive and persistent, and when it comes to maths it can be enduring, discouraging children who can be good at maths from pursuing careers that draw on it heavily. The good news is that anxiety can be dealt with – science is telling us that – and the wisdom and creativity that would otherwise be smothered by anxiety, can flourish.

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Today was an ending and a beginning. My darling girl finished year 12. The final year at school is tough enough, but this year was seismic. Our teens have moved through this year with the most outstanding courage and grace and strength, and now it is time for them to rest and play. My gosh they deserve it. 

It is true that this is a time of celebration, but it can also be an intense time of self-reflection for our teens. (I can remember the same feelings when my gorgeous boy finished so many years ago!) My daughter has described it as, ‘I feel as though I’ve outgrown myself but my new self isn’t ready yet.’ This just makes so much sense. 

There is a beautifully fertile void that is waiting for whatever comes next for each of them, but that void is still a void. At different times it might feel exciting, overwhelming, or brutal in its emptiness.

We also have to remember that this is a time of letting go, and there might be grief that comes with that. Before they can grab on to their next big adventure, they have to let go of the guard rails. This means gently adjusting their hold on the world they have known for the last 12+ years, with its places and routines and people that have felt like home on so many days. There will be redirects and shiftings, and through it all the things that need to stay will stay, and the things that need to adjust will adjust. 

To my darling girl, your loved incredible friends, and the teens who make our world what it is - you are the beautiful  thinkers, the big feelers, the creators, the change makers, and the ones who will craft and grow a better world. However you might feel now, the lights are waiting to shine for you and because of you. The world beyond school is opening its arms to you. That opening might happen quickly, or gently, or smoothly or chaotically, but it will happen. This world needs every one of you - your voices, your spirits, your fire, your softness, your strength and your power. You are world-ready, and we are so glad you are here xxx
When our kids or teens are in high emotion, their words might sound anxious, angry, inconsolable, jealous, defiant. As messy as the words might be, they have a good reason for being there. Big feelings surge as a way to influence the environment to meet a need. Of course, sometimes the fallout from this can be nuclear.
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Wherever there is a big emotion, there will always be an important need behind it - safety, comfort, attention, food, rest, connection. The need will always be valid, even if the way they’re going about meeting it is a little rough. As with so many difficult parenting moments, there will be gold in the middle of the mess if we know where to look. 
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There will be times for shaping the behaviour into a healthier response, but in the middle of a big feeling is not one of those times. Big feelings are NOT a sign of dysfunction, bad kids or bad parenting. They are a part of being human, and they bring rich opportunities for wisdom, learning and growth. .
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Parenting isn’t about stopping the emotional storms, but about moving through the storm and reaching the other side in a way that preserves the opportunity for our kids and teens to learn and grow from the experience - and they will always learn best from experience. 
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To calm a big feeling, name what you see, ‘I can see you’re disappointed. I know how much you wanted that’, or, ‘I can see this feels big for you,’ or, ‘You’re angry at me about .. aren’t you. I understand that. I would be mad too if I had to […],’ or ‘It sounds like today has been a really hard day.’ 
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When we connect with the emotion, we help soothe the nervous system. The emotion has done its job, found support, and can start to ease. 
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When they ‘let go’ they’re letting us in on their deepest and most honest emotional selves. We don’t need to change that. What we need to do is meet them where they and gently guide them from there. When they feel seen and understood, their trust in us and their connection to us will deepen, opening the way for our influence.
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When they are at that line, deciding whether to retreat to safety or move forward into brave, there will be a part of them that will know they have what it takes to be brave. It might be pale, or quiet, or a little tumbled by the noise from anxiety, but it will be there. And it will be magical. Our job as their flight crew is to clear the way for this magical part of them to rise. ‘I can see this feels scary for you - and I know you can do this.’ 
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When our kids or teens are struggling, it can be hard to know what they need. It can also be hard for them to say. It can be this way for all of us - we don't always know what we need from the people around us. It might be space, or distraction, or silence, or maybe acknowledging and being there is enough. Sometimes we might need to know that the people we love aren't taking our need for space, or our confusion or anger or sadness personally, and that they are still there within reach.
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What can be easier is thinking about what other people might need. Asking this when they are calm can invite a different perspective and can give you some insight into what they need to hear when they are going through similar. Don't worry if you just get a shrug, or a disheartened, 'I don't know'. They don't need to know, and neither do we. The question in itself might be enough to open a new way through any sense of 'stuckness' or helplessness they might be feeling.
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Give them space to talk but you don’t need to fix anything. You’ll want to, but the answers are in them, not us. Sometimes the answer will be to feel it out, or push for change, or feel the futility of it all so the feeling can let go, knowing it’s done it’s job - it’s recruited support, or raised awareness that something isn’t right.

Sometimes the feelings might be seismic but the words might be gone for a while. That’s okay too. Do they want to start with whatever words are there? Or talk about something else? Or go for a walk with you? Watch a movie with you? Or do a spontaneous, unnecessary drive thru with you just because you can - no words, no need to explain - just you and them and car music for the next 20 minutes. 

The more you can validate what they’re feeling (maybe, ‘Today was big for you wasn’t it’) and give them space to feel, the more they can feel the feeling, understand the need that’s fuelling it, and experiment with ways to deal with it. Sometimes, ‘dealing with it’ might mean acknowledging that there is something that feels big or important and a little out of reach right now, and feeling the fullness and futility of that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days are rubbish, and that sometimes those days last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. But the learning comes from experience.

I wish our kids never felt pain, but we don’t get to decide that. We don’t get to decide how our children grow, but we do get to decide how much space and support we give them for this growth. We can love them through it but we can’t love them out of it. I wish we could but we can’t.

So instead of feeling the need to silence their pain, make space for it. In the end we have no choice. Sometimes all the love in the world won’t be enough to put the wrong things right, but it can help them feel held while they move through the pain enough to find their out breath, and the strength that comes with that.♥️

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