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Drug-free Relief from Test Anxiety: Biofeedback as a Teaching Tool

Sep 28, 2016 03:38PM ● By Jill Broderick

Does your child complain of nervousness when studying for tests? Does he or she complain of headaches, muscle tension or stomach aches the day of a test? Is it difficult for the student to sleep as the test date nears? Does your student appear to know the material but reports going blank while taking a test? If you answer yes to any of these questions, your child may be suffering from test anxiety.

Test anxiety can come from many sources. Test-taking requires a fair amount of effort to recall and synthesize materials from class. Students require good study habits and the learning skills to prepare adequately for a test. Any learning challenges can further add stress for a student that might already have high expectations coming into a test situation. They may be worried about achieving a grade and what is can mean to their future goals and education. Perceived pressures from family, faculty or peers can also cause anxiety. All of the student’s attention may become narrowed as he or she finds they are thinking only about preparing and taking test. Stress symptoms are likely to increase as the test date comes closer.

The process of narrowing attention to a perceived stress actually activates the sympathetic nervous system, creating what is commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. A few examples of the changes include increased muscle tension, rapid heart rate, faster and more shallow breathing, cold hands, slowed or stopped digestion, tunnel vision and increased sensitivity to other potential threats in the immediate vicinity.

The student with test anxiety may or may not have a full-blown fight or flight response; however, with the narrowing of attention and perception of a threat, a similar response is likely to occur. Left unchecked, the student may start to respond to all testing in a similar way with fear developing about experiencing the unpleasant symptoms from test anxiety. Avoidance behaviors may develop—such as using an illness to avoid the test, skipping school or substance abuse—and academic performance may decline. Feeling a loss of control from symptoms and dealing with potentially decreasing grades, a student may also start feeling depressed.

There is good news to consider about managing test anxiety. Students can learn how to manage symptoms of anxiety and stress using some simple techniques to quiet the central nervous system. Relaxation training techniques can directly change the physiological reaction to stress. Students can learn how to develop skills that will help them develop a sense of control and mastery over anxiety-related symptoms. But how does a student know if the techniques are really working, particularly in the beginning? How can the student be encouraged to stick with training and help to reinforce his or her effort? Enter into the process of biofeedback.

“Biofeedback is a process that enables an individual to learn how to change physiological activity for the purposes of improving health and performance. Precise instruments measure physiological activity such as brainwaves, heart function, breathing, muscle activity and skin temperature. These instruments rapidly and accurately “feed back” information to the user,” states the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Behavior.

Students using biofeedback can see, in real time, how some simple techniques can change their physiology. The student is taught what the signal means and can practice techniques in the therapist’s office to become more skilled at being able to voluntarily quiet mind and body. As learning continues, the student can become aware of changes in his or her own physiology and then use self-regulatory techniques without biofeedback to manage symptoms. Once the student gains some control over symptoms, additional problem-solving tools can be pursued regarding studying habits, preparation and any other issues that may contribute to test-taking anxiety.

The ability to develop self-regulation is an essential life skill. When you quiet your nervous system, you can better access your ability to problem solve, communicate and relate to others. Instead of being preoccupied with negative thoughts, biofeedback can help you be aware of your response in the present moment. As the person using biofeedback continues to achieve desired goals set on the equipment, confidence about managing symptoms increases. Understanding the changes in physical response using the biofeedback data along with increased self-awareness helps create hope that symptoms from test anxiety can be managed or even eliminated.

Jill Broderick, MS, OTR, BCB, is a licensed occupational therapist and owner of Feedback Loops Occupational Therapy and Biofeedback Services in Madison. She is nationally board certified in biofeedback and has been treating patients as a main focus of treatment for over 25 years. Connect at

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