Getting an A

Test taking stress strategies.

Are American students the world’s most tested kids? According to Teachers College at Columbia University, American students take more than 100 million standardized tests every year. Students, parents, teachers and administrators are unbelievably stressed about these critical exams because the test results often determine a child’s future placement in school and are increasingly seen as a measure of teacher and school competence.

At the Stress Institute and in my private practice over the years, I have counseled countless students and parents on a regular basis about the various stresses in life. Test-taking is starting to rank pretty high on our lists as we become more and more concerned with how America’s educational system and results compare to other countries.

When my daughter was studying for her MCAT’s to get into medical school, she kept coming up short. All motherly bias aside, I knew she could have aced those tests and racked my brain to solve this dilemma. Then it hit me. She was stressed out to the max about this test; the results could determine her life’s course. I came up with a complete regimen for her, and her test scores increased by five points. She got into medical school and today she is a critical care doctor and helps save lives every day.

It is important to recognize the warning signs of test stress. There are common symptoms of test anxiety. There are physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach problems or insomnia. Some of the psychological symptoms are nervousness, irritability, aggressiveness, anger, frustration with self and others, withdrawal or depression.

There are simple tips to maximize test scores and minimize the stress a person experiences when taking tests. Each student just needs to remember the simple acronym S.E.L.F. ™ care.

S is for serenity, which is the opposite of stress.

There are simple relaxation methods that help reduce stress and relax the mind and body.

Remember to breathe deeply. Most people take shallow breaths when they are stressed, which starves the body and brain of oxygen. Develop the practice of taking a deep breath before you take tests. Inhale with your nose and count to four as you inhale and then exhale through your mouth to the count of four. Do this four times and you will feel refreshed. The breath clears the mind, body and soul. Repeat positive affirmations such as “I will do my best today,” “I am smart” or “I am confident.” Research tells us that when you get stressed you begin negative self talk. Stop self hate talk and thinking. Empower yourself with positive affirmations. Maintain an “attitude of gratitude.” It is physiologically impossible to be grateful and experience stress at the same time. Studies tell us daily gratitude exercises result in higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, optimism and energy. Research shows grateful individuals report having more energy and less physical complaints than their non-grateful counterparts.

Practice guided imagery. When you get stressed in the middle of the test, take a deep breath and imagine you are in a safe place like the beach or a meadow. This gets you centered, clears the mind and helps remove the worry from your body. Science tells us that guided imagery is an excellent method for reducing stress in the mind, body and soul.

Take a hot bath the night before the test and use aromatherapy candles. Science tells us that water reduces stress in the mind, body and soul. Certain aromas are very relaxing. The morning of the test, turn on the faucet and put your hands (up to your wrists) under the water. Take a deep breath and clear your mind for one minute.

Rent a comedy or listen to a funny CD. Laughter has been scientifically proven to reduce stress hormones and release endorphins. Go to YouTube.com and watch a funny two-minute video. Find a Web site with jokes and share them with your family. Laughter even boosts your immune function and will prevent you from getting sick. The night before the test make sure you laugh a lot.

E is for exercise.

Walk around the block the night before and the morning of the test. Exercise produces endorphins (healing hormones) almost immediately, which helps lower cortisol effectively and reduces stress. Discover new exercises such as pilates, yoga, tai chi or chi gong.

Do chair yoga during the test. Rent or purchase a chair yoga tape and memorize five positions you enjoy doing. During breaks or stressful times simply do a yoga stretch in your chair. This will move oxygen into the brain and body and relax the body.

L is for love.

Many test takers feel isolated and experience test taking as harsh competition. See the others in the testing room as a community. Isolation is an illusion. Viewing your fellow testers as a team will increase your feeling of safety and decrease your heart rate. Community is essential to reducing stress. Call friends the week of the test and study together. This creates community in which you share a common bond and will help reduce stress.

Wear your favorite color to the test. Science shows that color greatly influences our mood, productivity and creativity. Surround yourself with favorite color, from your shirt to your jewelry. This is calming and creates balance while you are in your test-taking environment.

F is for food.

Food is medicine and can help reduce our stress and help our brains function at a higher level. Eat blueberries and bananas. These are foods that increase your serotonin which counter high stress levels that occur in testing situations. Foods with B-6, protein and complex carbs such as sweet potatoes, turkey, rice, sunflower seeds, tuna, whole grain breads, pasta, cereals and fruit increase serotonin and endorphins, which help to open the brain channels.

Remember to celebrate and reward yourself after you take a test. The test is over and you did your best. Leave the test in that room.