How To Beat Test Anxiety and Win Your Brain Back

Using brain science, Brainology teaches students how to beat performance anxiety through calming down, creating new, positive stories and by giving them a simple but effective study process.

As she was walking toward me waiting in the carpool lane, I knew something was up.

Her waves to classmates as they hopped into their respective cars, carried an unusual veil of strain. 

She has a “tell”.  It’s slightly different from her father’s.  His lips completely disappear when something is wrong.  For her, she looks down and appears to want to crawl into any hole she can find.

Now closer, I can see the tears welling up.  I brace myself for the gale-force winds of emotion that are about to enter my car.

The door is barely closed as she sobs out, “I’m so stressed!  I’ve been studying for five days for this Chinese character test, and I still can’t figure out how to memorize them.  I’m going to fail the test tomorrow!”

I was instantly reminded of a TED Talk by the author, Karen Thompson Walker.  “What if instead of calling them fear, we called them stories?”  Ms. Walker says. “That’s what fear is in a way.  A kind of unintentional storytelling that we were all born knowing how to do…Fear has characters. Fear has plots - a beginning, middle and end.” 

My daughter’s fear story: Girl isn’t prepared for test.  Girl takes test.  Girl fails test.  Girl’s life is over.   

She was giving up when it was getting hard.  A terrible prospect. 

My daughter desperately needed a new story.  

“Honey, you cannot learn anything in this state,” I said.  “Remember what they said in the Brainology® program?”  

Last fall, my daughter enrolled in the program which is based on the research from Carol Dweck’s book,  Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.   

She hadn’t needed this part of the program before, and she required a refresher course…fast.   

Although it’s called Brainology®, it isn’t brain surgery.  It’s really just an easy biology lesson, and Dweck has proven that that’s all you need. Learning how the brain works helps children become more resilient.

Using brain science, the program teaches it’s young students how to beat performance anxiety through calming down, creating new, positive stories and by giving them a simple but effective study process.

The first step was to calm down.

Since there are few saber-tooth tigers in our lives, most of us experience stress symptoms when we have performance anxiety. 

Although these stress symptoms are normal, they get in the way of mental performance.  Not only does the brain have a hard time learning anything in this state, it even has a hard time recalling information that it has already memorized.    

Dweck says this is why, even though you practice over-and-over again for an important presentation, you can stand up and blank.

We needed to “kill” the foam-at-the-mouth rabid dog she was apparently facing down and start to square-breathe.  Square-breathing, according to Brainology®, “moves concentration from an emotional state to a physical state and breaks down adrenaline in the bloodstream.”  You inhale for a count of 5, hold for a count of 5, exhale for a count of 5, hold for a count of 5, repeat.  

The second step is to create a new, more positive story without focusing on an end result.

 Instead of saying “I’m going to fail tomorrow,” she needed to say “I’ll do my best studying this evening.”  All she should ask of herself was to do everything she could, to the best of her abilities.  

She wasn’t supposed to focus on the end grade, but I did feel compelled to convince her that we wouldn’t ground her for life, and the earth would continue to spin even if she did, indeed, get a D or F.  

Although suspicious, she was now calmer and started focusing on the process.  

She began to make a plan of attack using Brainology®’s excellent B.R.A.I.N. acronym: Break it down, Repeat, Action, Information search, Never give up.

B (reak it down)

To help her get started, we broke down the evening’s work into smaller, more achievable, pieces: memorize how to write the characters, learn their English translations and then put them together to make a simple phrase.  

Then she broke down the memorization piece some more.  She made three piles - ones she did know, ones she “sorta” knew and those that were completely unmemorized.  

R (epeat) & A (ction)

To get the material into long-term memory, repetition and getting active with the content was key.  

Instead of just staring at a confusion of squiggly lines, she now tried to find something in each figure that resembled what it stood for.  For instance, in the character for “teacher,” she found a pitch-fork and decided it would represent one of her teachers that…well, you get the idea.

With these creative cues, she drew each character over and over and over again before moving on to the next one.

I (nformation search)

She dug through the folder for all the past homework to ensure she had everything correct.

N (ever give up)

She’d been at it for over an hour. I thought she had done enough.  She disagreed.  She definitely wasn’t giving up now.

The next day’s carpool was different.  My girl was back.  She bounded into the car exclaiming, “It was sooo funny!  I almost laughed out loud during the test when I got to the word, teacher!” she said.

After a few tunes on the radio, she said, “Mom?  I guess that process really works.”

I was dying to know how she thought she did, but she wasn’t supposed to focus on the end result and, as hard as it was for me, I refused to either.

It didn’t matter.  We were both pretty sure we knew anyway.