Dear Estelle. My daughter is a bright girl who claims she gets so nervous when she has to take a test that she freezes up and doesn’t do well. With the SAT and ACT tests on the horizon in the next few months and knowing their importance in college admissions, I’m very concerned about her performance. Any suggestions? Beverly S., Centennial, CO
People who have test anxiety describe similar reactions. Their heart begins to beat more rapidly, their mouth gets dry, their brain turns to mush and they don’t perform in a way that reflects their ability. There are several known strategies to cope with this sometimes paralyzing fear and to de-escalate those powerful sympathetic reactions. We know about deep breathing and answering the easy questions first, but sometimes this doesn’t help.
Why does this happen to some of us? To help answer this question we might examine what causes anxiety. Sometimes there are fears that operate at an unconscious level based on past experiences. These experiences, and how our brain interprets them, can undermine our best attempts to eliminate them. So how do we over-ride this reaction and perform at our best?
Psychologists now offer brief treatments to deal with these underlying issues. One of these protocols is called EMDR. (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). Therapists who use EMDR employ bi-lateral stimulation (which helps replicate how our brain operates in REM sleep) to assist us to reprogram these events so we can operate at our best.
For example, if we have had an incident in which our ability to perform, or function, was ridiculed or denigrated, this experience could be negatively encoded as an irrational belief about ourselves. Statements such as “I am stupid” or “I don’t test well” are typical. These memories, and how we interpret them, can have a lasting effect and can interfere with the way we operate in the world. So even if we know we are smart and capable in our heads, our hearts and body have a conflicting interpretation, giving us a negative message about our intelligence. In a testing environment these irrational beliefs, and our reaction to them, over-ride our ability to function at our best. EMDR helps to reverse these negative beliefs and feelings so we can take tests in relative comfort and perform well.
There are several accredited therapists in Denver who employ this remarkable technique. Using EMDR they can help people operate at peak performance in test situations. More about this protocol, and the therapists who employ it, can be found at EMDR.COM and EMDRIA.ORG. Call or email me for a referral.