Do you blank out on exams? Improve school performance with breathing* **Posted: September 18, 2016
“I opened the exam booklet and I went blank.”
“When I got anxious, I took a slow breath, reminded myself that I would remember the material. I successfully passed the exam.”
“I was shocked, when I gasped, I could not remember my girlfriend’s name and then I could not remember my mother’s name. When breathed slowly, I had no problem and easily remembered both”
Blanking out the memorized information that you have studied on an exam is a common experiences of students even if they worked hard (Arnsten, Mazure, & Sinha, 2012). Fear and poor study habits often contribute to forgetting the material (Fitkov-Norris, & Yeghiazarian, 2013). Most students study while listening to music, responding to text message, or monitoring social network sites such as, Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest (David et al., 2015).. Other students study the material for one class then immediately shift and study material from another class. While at home they study while sitting or lying on their bed. Numerous students have internalized the cultural or familial beliefs that math is difficult and you do not have the aptitude for the material—your mother and father were also poor in math (Cherif, Movahedzadeh, Adams, & Dunning, 2013). These beliefs and dysfunctional study habits limit learning (Neal, Wood, & Drolet, 2013).
Blanking out on an exam or class presentation is usually caused by fear or performance anxiety which triggers a stress response (Hodges, 2015; Spielberger, Anton, & Bedell, 2015). At that moment, the brain is flooded with thoughts such as, I can’t do it,” “I will fail,” “I used to know this, but…”, or “What will people think?” The body responds with a defense reaction as if you are being threatened and your survival is at stake. The emotional reactivity and anxiety overwhelms cognition, resulting in an automatic ‘freeze’ response of breath holding or very shallow breathing. At that moment, you blank out (Hagenaars, Oitzl, & Roelofs, 2014; Sink et al., 2013; Von Der Embse, Barterian, & Segool, 2013).
Experience how your thinking is affected by your breathing pattern. Do the following practice with another person.
Have the person ask you a question and the moment you hear the beginning of the question, gasp as if you are shocked or surprised. React just as quickly and automatically as you would if you see a car speeding towards you. At that moment of shock or surprise, you do not think, you don’t spend time identifying the car or look at who is driving. You reflexively and automatically jump out of the way. Similarly in this exercise, when you are asked to answer a question, act as if you are as shocked or surprised to see a car racing towards you.
Practice gasping at the onset of hearing the beginning of a question such as, “What day was it yesterday?” At the onset of the sound, gasp as if startled or afraid. During the first few practices, many people wait until they have heard the whole phrase before gasping. This would be similar to seeing a car racing towards you and first thinking about the car, at that point you would be hit. Repeat this a few times till it is automatic.
Now change the breathing pattern from gasping to slow breathing and practice this for a few times.
When you hear the beginning of the question breathe slowly and then exhale.” Inhale slowly for about 4 seconds while allowing your abdomen to expand and then exhale softly for about 5 or six seconds. Repeat practicing slow breathing in response to hearing the onset of the question until it is automatic.
Now repeat the two breathing patterns (gasping and slow breathing) while the person asks you a subtraction or math questions such as, “Subtract 7 from 93.”
In research with more than 100 college students, we found that students had significantly more self-reported anxiety and difficulty in solving math problems when gasping as compared to slow breathing as shown Figure 1 (Lee et al, 2016; Peper, Lee, Harvey & Lin, 2016).
Fig 1. The effect of breathing style on math performance. Diaphragmatic breathing significantly increased math performance and decreased anxiety (from: Peper, Lee, Harvey & Lin, 2016).
As one 20 year old college student said, “When I gasped, my mind went blank and I could not do the subtraction. When I breathed slowly, I had no problem doing the subtractions. I never realized that breathing had such a big effect upon my performance.”
When you are stressed and blank out, take a slow diaphragmatic breath to improve performance; however, it is only effective if you have previously studied the materials effectively. To improve effective learning incorporate the following concepts when studying.
- Approached learning with a question. When you begin to study the material or attend a class, ask yourself a question that you would like to be answered. When you have a purpose, it is easier to stay emotionally present and remember the material (Osman, & Hannafin, 1994).
- Process what you are learning with as many sensory cues as possible. Take hand written notes when reading the text or listening to your teacher. Afterwards meet with your friends in person, on Skype and again discuss and review the materials. As you discuss the materials, add comments to your notes. Do not take notes on your computer because people can often type almost as quickly as someone speaks. The computer notes are much less processed and are similar to the experience of a court or medical transcriptionist where the information flows from the ears to the fingers without staying in between. College students who take notes in class on a computer or tablets perform worse on exams than students who write notes. When you write your notes you have to process the material and extract and synthesis relevant concepts.
- Review the notes and material before going to sleep. Research has demonstrated that whatever material is in temporary memory before going to sleep will be more likely be stored in long term memory (Gais et al., 2006; Diekelmann et al., 2009). When you study material is stored in temporary memory, and then when you study something else, the first material tends to displaced by the more recent material. The last studied material is more likely stored in long term memory. When you watch a movie after studying, the movie content is preferentially stored in permanent memory during sleep. In addition, what is emotionally most important to you is usually stored first. Thus, instead of watching movies and chatting on social media, discuss and review the materials just before you go to sleep.
- Learning is state dependent. Study and review the materials under similar conditions as you will be tested. Without awareness the learned content is covertly associated with environmental, emotional, social and kinesthetic cues. Thus when you study in bed, the material is most easily accessed while lying down. When you study with music, the music become retrieval trigger. Without awareness the materials are encoded with the cues of lying down or the music played in the background. When you come to the exam room, none of those cues are there, thus it is more difficult to recall the material (Eich, 2014).
- Avoid interruptions. When studying each time you become distracted by answering a text message or responding to social media, your concentration is disrupted (Swingle, 2016). Imagine that learning is like scuba diving and the learning occurs mainly at the bottom. Each interruption forces you to go to the surface and it takes time to dive down again. Thus you learn much less than if you stayed at the bottom for the whole time period.
- Develop study rituals. Incorporate a ritual before beginning studying and repeat it during studying such as three slow breaths. The ritual can become the structure cue associated with the learned material. When you come to exam and you do not remember or are anxious, perform the same ritual which will allow easier access to the memory.
- Change your internal language. What we overtly or covertly say and believe is what we become. When you say, “I am stupid”, “I can’t do math,” or “It is too difficult to learn,” you become powerless which increases your stress and inhibits cognitive function. Instead, change your internal language so that it implies that you can master the materials such as, “I need more time to study and to practice the material,” “Learning just takes time and at this moment it may take a bit longer than for someone else,” or “I need a better tutor,”
When you take charge of your study habits and practice slower breathing during studying and test taking, you may experience a significant improvement in learning, remembering, accessing, and processing information.
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Peper, E., Lee, S., Harvey, R., & Lin, I-M. (2016). Breathing and math performance: Implication for performance and neurotherapy. NeuroRegulation, 3(4),142–149.
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Sink, K. S., Walker, D. L., Freeman, S. M., Flandreau, E. I., Ressler, K. J., & Davis, M. (2013). Effects of continuously enhanced corticotropin releasing factor expression within the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis on conditioned and unconditioned anxiety. Molecular psychiatry, 18(3), 308-319.
Swingle, M. (2016). i-Minds: How cell phones, computers, gaming and social media are changing our brains, our behavior, and the evolution of our species. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers.
Von Der Embse, N., Barterian, J., & Segool, N. (2013). Test anxiety interventions for children and adolescents: A systematic review of treatment studies from 2000–2010. Psychology in the Schools, 50(1), 57-71.
*I thank Richard Harvey, PhD. for his constructive feedback and comments and Shannon Lee for her superb research.
** This blog was adapted from: Lee, S., Sanchez, J., Peper, E., & Harvey, R. (2016). Effect of Breathing Style on Math Problem Solving. Presented at the 47th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Seattle WA, March 9-12, 2016