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How Simple Breathing Can Stomp your Test Anxiety

By Cole A Harrison-Priddle, 3rd year English/Art History/Voice student

 Exams and in-class tests are not only evaluations of your knowledge and ability to apply it. They’re also performances: the class is your stage, your pens and pencils are your props, the time limit is your show length, and the examiner is your audience. Unlike actors performing a rehearsed play, students like you must determine the best answers to the show as you are performing it. Considering how rampant stage fright is even amongst veteran performers for rehearsed plays, it is understandable that you might feel test anxiety when approaching or performing an exam. Luckily, you and everyone else has a latent tool – one in constant use but likely not yet harnessed, one that is foundational yet able to make or break actors, singers and musicians alike, and one without which you cannot live – your breath.

Anyone who has experienced test anxiety knows the feeling – your brain seizes, your hands sweat, and your heart stutters and fills with lead – however, the most immediate and controllable indicator of anxiety is rapid, shallow breathing. Shallow breaths fail to properly oxygenate your blood, muscles, and brain. Rapid breaths hasten your heart beat. Fortunately, breathing is not a symptom beyond your control, and when harnessed, it is the most effective tool in controlling your nerves. I’ll describe a simple and silent breathing exercise you can use during tests (or whenever the need arises) to dissolve anxiety. It is a combination of yogic and operatic breathing techniques I call Sitting Pranayama.

Firstly, it is important to breathe properly. If you are like the majority of the populace, you breathe into your shoulders. If you want to determine if this is you, place your hand on your opposing shoulder (or get a friend to) and breathe. If you feel your shoulders raise or expand, you’re a shoulder breather. It is not your fault. Even professional opera singers are often guilty of shoulder breathing: To get the full benefit out of breathing, you must fully expand your diaphragm; in layman’s terms, breathe into your belly. (Look up “how to breathe like a singer” in YouTube if you want a visual tutorial.) To learn diaphragmic breathing, stand up and place your hand directly below your belly button. When you breathe, imagine yourself breathing into your lower belly so that you can feel your belly’s expansion in your hand. Do this a few times to get the feel for it (it’s a physical thing, so your body needs to remember the feeling if you want to reproduce it). If you’re worried that your shoulders are still rising, place your other hand on one of them to gauge their movement: ideally, they should be still as stone. Once you feel your belly expand, you’ve got it! It is as simple as that; you’re breathing as you did when you were born, maximizing the effectiveness of each breath.

(If you want to further the effectiveness of your breathing, do the exercise again with your arms in a chicken-wing formation to feel expansion in your ribs, and again with your hands on your midback to feel expansion there as well. You want your midsection to inflate like a floaty, 360° around.)

Once you’ve got diaphragmic breathing down, you can try Sitting Pranayama. Sit in a chair (like during a test) and sit up straight. You can put your hand below your belly button if the sensation helps. Once in position, breathe in this rhythm: breathe into your nose for four seconds, hold all your breath in for four seconds, breathe all your air out through your nose across four seconds, and then hold your breath (with no air left) for four seconds. Still anxious? Repeat. It’s as simple as that: 4 – 4 – 4 – 4. This repeatable sixteen-second breathing exercise forces your heartbeat to slow and your brain to calm down while properly oxygenating both. Breathing through your nose warms the air before it hits your lungs and forces you to breathe slowly, so make sure you’re breathing through your nose (unless you have a cold) because it is optimal for instilling bodily calm. If you feel like you can’t breathe in any more air before the four seconds are up, breathe more slowly and more deeply so that your belly is as expanded and full as you can make it . I find it beneficial to close my eyes when doing the exercise so that my focus is isolated to my breath. Everybody is unique, however, so practice ahead of time to find a modified version that works for you!

Hopefully, Sitting Pranayama works for you! “Pranayama” means the expansion of life force; however, while certainly there is expansion, Sitting Pranayama helps to alleviate disruptive anxiety and help you find your center. It is especially effective at mitigating panic attacks. I hope this helps. For your next test performance, break a leg! Your salvation is within you.

Most people who have test anxiety will benefit from seeking out professional help or accommodations. I encourage readers to contact Student Wellness Services to make an appointment with an experienced professional counsellor through Counselling Services or to seek accommodations through Accommodations Services. Additionally, Student Academic Success Services offers one-on-one advising appointments, workshops, and presentations on the subject. See both links below.

Student Wellness Services http://www.queensu.ca/studentwellness/counselling-services

Student Academic Success Servies   http://sass.queensu.ca/