Note: This is a guest post by Eleanor Sharp, one of ArborBridge’s Senior Tutors. Read Eleanor’s bio here.
Why consider testing anxiety?
Testing anxiety is a common experience that can make a significant impact on student performance. Unlike other common difficulties, such as running out of time on the ACT Science section or feeling overwhelmed by the global conversation passage in SAT Reading, anxiety has rarely been framed as a challenge that students can work with. Instead, it’s often perceived as something that shouldn’t be that big of a deal; students may not bring it up even if they are aware of it, or they may feel awkward talking about it.
As ArborBridge tutors, we ensure that students lead the conversation on the topic of anxiety when it arises. Our goal is to create space for anxiety challenges to be addressed straightforwardly via practical skillsets—the same way we would address any other test preparation challenge. The scene below depicts how ArborBridge tutors guide conversations and offer techniques to work with anxiety, helping students build meta-cognition skills that can make a big difference in moving toward their goals.
Tutor: So, how are you feeling about the practice test this coming weekend?
Student: I feel good. I mean, I’m nervous about it, but it should be fine.
T: It sounds like you’re noticing a confident part of yourself and a nervous part. Let’s talk about both. What are some of the things that are making you feel ready for the test?
S: Well, I know I’ve been practicing a lot, and I have been improving.
T: Yes, absolutely. What are some of the specific areas where you notice yourself doing better?
S: Well, I’m getting faster in the Reading, though I still need to speed up more. And my accuracy in English has been better. And in the Science section, I’m realizing I don’t need to look at the passage so much and I can just try to figure out what the questions are asking for. It’s sort of a relief, because I thought the Science was going to be so hard when I was making the decision between ACT and SAT.
T: It seems like you’re finding that the intimidation factor was a big piece of the puzzle, and that you actually do have the skills to deal with the content.
S: Yeah! It feels good.
T: That’s great! You’ve worked hard, and it’s paying off. You also mentioned feeling nervous about the practice test. Can you say more about that?
S: I just know I never do as well on the tests as I do on homework, even the practice tests.
T: What are some factors that you think might make the tests feel different than homework?
S: Well, the test is really long, so I get tired by the end. And I get worried about whether I’ll be able to hit the score I want. It doesn’t matter if I do well on homework if I can’t do the same thing on the test itself.
T: Are there specific parts of the test where you find yourself having more anxious thoughts about your performance?
S: Yeah, in the Math section I start to worry whether I’m going fast enough and whether the problems at the end will be harder. I get nervous that I won’t be able to figure them out.
T: Sure, that makes sense. The section does get harder as it goes along. Do you ever find yourself getting distracted by your thoughts about the difficult questions?
S: Yes! I think about how the math is going to get harder, and that makes it tough to feel good about the problems I’m already doing, even the ones that I know how to do. And then I start to feel anxious about what will happen if I don’t get a good score. If I could just stay focused on the test and not get distracted about what’s coming next, then I might get more questions right.
T: So, if the anxious part of you could relax a little bit, then the confident part of you could be more present?
S: Yeah. It would be amazing if that could happen!
T: I’m curious: how do you know you’re anxious in the first place?
S: Umm, I’m not really sure. What do you mean?
T: Sometimes anxiety comes with a physical sensation, like sweaty palms, tense muscles, shallow breaths, a restless feeling, or a stomachache. When I get anxious, I start to feel like my stomach is in knots.
S: I do sometimes notice that I haven’t taken a deep breath in a long time, and I also get pretty tense in my shoulders and feel jittery.
T: That’s great to know. So those are early signals that anxiety is coming up. What do you think it would feel like to take a deep breath, when you notice one or more of those signals?
S: I think that would feel pretty good.
T: There is actually a ton of evidence that a controlled breathing exercise can quickly decrease anxiety. An example of an easy breathing exercise we can do at any time is called the 3-4-5 breath. You breathe in for three seconds, hold for four seconds, and breathe out for five seconds. Do you want to try it now, for three or four rounds? I can count for you.
[student and tutor do the breathing exercise together]
T: How did that feel?
S: It took a second to get used to the rhythm of the breathing, but I actually feel calmer already.
T: Great! That’s a tool you can use now, anytime you notice one of your signs of anxiety. You can try it when you take this week’s practice test.
S: Okay, I’ll definitely try it out. But what if I still can’t get rid of the anxiety?
T: I hear you. Sometimes it can help to change our perception of the anxiety. For example, what if it’s trying to protect you? What if the shallow breaths, tense muscles, and jittery feeling are all signs that your body is preparing you for a challenge?
S: I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that makes a lot of sense. That feels better than thinking of anxiety as bad or scary.
T: Right! Maybe it’s not so scary. I sometimes picture anxiety as Tinkerbell. Remember the character from Peter Pan? She was always worried about what might happen next and rarely put her guard down.
S: Yeah, she was like, “I’m not sure about this Wendy girl…”
T: Haha, exactly! She was pretty nagging at times, but she meant well; she was trying to protect Peter Pan. She’s an important part of the whole ecosystem.
S: Yeah, she’s like a main character.
T: Anxiety can be like that. It might be helpful to imagine you have an invisible chair next to you in the test room, so that when the Tinkerbell part of you comes up and starts filling your head with worries about time and accuracy, you can politely ask her to have a seat in the invisible chair while the rest of you focuses on the test. Does that feel like something you could try?
S: Yeah, definitely. I mean at the very least that’s a pretty different way of thinking about it than I’ve tried before. I just always feel like I need to stop being nervous.
T: I totally get that. There are a lot of perceptions out there about these fears being bad, but when I hear you describe your experience out loud, it sounds to me like this is all great information for you to name and acknowledge. That way you know what’s happening to you, and you can participate more in your own experience.
S: Okay, yeah. That’s cool, actually. I like this way of thinking about things. I feel more in control.
T: Alright, so let’s zoom back in a little here. What kind of practice would be most helpful for homework between now and when we meet on Thursday before the practice test this weekend?
S: I’d really like to try the strategies we talked about today on the ACT Math section.
T: Great. Why don’t we have you do a timed Math section for homework? We’ll focus on the transition from the easier problems to the harder problems—the window where you might start feeling concerned about whether or not you’ll make it through. Let’s set it as problems 26–50 from the second practice test’s Math section. While you’re working on it, if you notice anxious thoughts or physical stress reactions, remember what we talked about: do the 3-4-5 breath, name the anxiety, let it sit in an invisible chair beside you, and keep moving forward, knowing that you’re perfectly equipped to handle the section.
S: Sounds good!
T: For now, I want to experiment a little with the science again. So, go ahead and open up that section that you started from for homework…
Recap: How do we work with anxiety?
In this conversation, the tutor intentionally engages a number of guidance strategies:
- Acknowledging and validating the student’s strengths.
- Asking open-ended questions from a place of curiosity about the student’s experience.
- Modeling confidence and self-awareness while avoiding taking on the student’s anxiety.
- Normalizing anxiety through briefly relating personal experience.
- Focusing on the student’s agency and ability to take action within the experience of anxiety.
The tutor also offers concrete, research-supported skills and tactics for working with anxiety:
- Bring awareness to anxious feelings and name them: Research shows that naming negative feelings can decrease their intensity. For example, a study from UCLA found that when people experience an emotion and then verbally label it as “sad” or “scary,” activity in the amygdala—a region of the brain that responds to fear signals— significantly decreases (Lieberman).
- Develop a nonjudgmental attitude toward negative feelings: Research supports the idea that making space for anxiety, rather than pushing it away, actually reduces the symptoms of stress. A recent study conducted at Penn State University found that college freshmen were significantly more likely to experience reduced anxiety and a greater sense of satisfaction with life after participating in a mindfulness program that taught them to recognize emotional, physical, and cognitive signs of stress and approach them with acceptance and kindness (Dvorakova).
- Use controlled breathing exercises: Studies show that our breath is a built-in way to calm anxiety. For example, a cardiologist at Harvard discovered that controlled deep breathing exercises—where patients intentionally inhale and exhale for set periods of time—calm the body’s stress response by slowing the heartbeat and lowering blood pressure. (Benson)
- Take practice tests: Research backs up the claim that taking practice tests is the best way for a student to learn—and to stay calm on test day. A study conducted at Tufts University found that retrieval practice, or learning by taking practice tests, resulted in better performance on exams and increased retention of learned material, even under high levels of stress (Thomas).
Overall, ArborBridge tutors support students in increasing their self-awareness and realizing that testing anxiety is not a foregone conclusion out of their control. Just as with any other test prep skill, we teach students how to identify anxiety and how to move through it with purpose and ease.