Soothing Test Anxiety
I’ll never forget the day my son came home and said, “Mom, I just want to warn you, I think I failed my math test today.” He said that when he sat down to take the test his heart began to pound, he felt dizzy and short of breath and couldn’t remember a thing he had studied. Fortunately, my son has not experienced test anxiety since, but for some children and teenagers, test anxiety is a constant companion.
“The autonomic nervous system in students with test anxiety gets generated into overdrive very quickly,” says Julie Powell Thomas, Ph.D., psychologist and founding partner of the Tulsa Developmental Pediatric and Center for Family Psychology.
“Anxiety is triggered by thoughts. When someone is anxious, his or her thoughts will be exaggerated. After the thought, breathing will become rapid, shallow and in their chest; their heart will beat fast. When they are worked up like this, they won’t be able to remember what they’ve studied.”
Thomas says that children who manifest this type of anxiety are often perfectionists who show perfectionistic tendencies in other areas of life as well. “These are children who tend to have meltdowns,” says Thomas.
Parents need to understand that simple reassurance doesn’t work. “These thoughts aren’t rational so parents can’t reassure them away.”
She adds that better preparation isn’t the key either because these are often the children who are prepared. “It’s simple,” she says, “when they are worried they won’t remember.”
According to Thomas, the primary treatment for test anxiety is cognitive/behavioral. “The first thing these kids need to be taught is to recognize the thoughts and their irrational nature. Then they need to learn how to get management of their thoughts and learn techniques to calm their body—ways to slow the breathing and heart rate.”
Thomas teaches children with anxiety to calm their bodies by controlling their breath. “When they find themselves getting worked up, they need to immediately re-regulate their breathing. They should be taught to take three big, deep breaths in through their nose and blow them out as though they are blowing out a candle. This restores a bit of rhythm to breathing patterns.”
Next she says they need to go on to “calming breathing.” This is done by breathing in slowly and deeply through the nose only. “This type of breathing provides more oxygen to the brain and calms them down,” she says.
The breathing techniques should be practiced when children are not upset. “The more they practice, the more automatic it gets and the easier it gets.” Thomas adds that “anxious kids often have anxious parents.” She encourages parents to team up with their kids to help one another by practicing the breathing exercises together.
The evening before a test, children with a tendency toward test anxiety should eat a high protein snack before bed and get plenty of sleep. She warns, however, that often anxious children have trouble getting to sleep. “Once their bodies slow down, their brains get activated and they start worrying. Their minds need to calm down so their bodies can calm down.”
She recommends that in families where anxiety is a problem, evenings should be kept low key. “Lower the lights and reduce competing noises, as these kids are easily over-stimulated.”
She also suggests such things as lighting candles in the evening, giving massages with lavender lotion, practicing yoga, listening to low music and reading before bed as techniques to help anxious children (and adults) work slowly into bedtime.
If the above-listed techniques are inadequate and a child’s anxiety is interfering significantly with recall, Thomas recommends that the child see a specialist.