Just Breathe

Opera singers and Olympic swimmers aren’t the only ones who need to pay attention to their inhales and exhales.  Breathing has a very important effect on brain function, and learning how to utilize the breath could be one of the most valuable techniques your student can use on test day.

To illustrate this point, we are going to ask you to try this very simple exercise. Yes, you.  Right now.

▪ Sit comfortably and upright in your chair. Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.

▪ Breathe in through your nose and feel your body react as it takes in air.  Notice that the hand on your stomach rises and the hand on your chest moves much less.

▪ Exhale through your mouth, forcefully pushing out as much air as you can. Again, notice the hand on your stomach will move in as you exhale and the hand on your chest will move very little.

▪ Continue this cycle of breath—in through your nose and out through your mouth. Repeat at least 10 times.

If you did the exercise, notice how you feel.  (If you didn’t do the exercise, stop here and do it.  You’ll thank us later.)  Whether you are feeling totally zen or just slightly more positive than a few minutes ago, notice how just a few deep breaths can do wonders for stress relief and mood.

So how can deep breathing help your student on exam day? Here are a few key benefits:

  1. Oxygen…It’s not just a women’s television network.  Think about the last time you were really nervous about something.  Do you think you were taking slow, deep, relaxed breaths as you stressed and fretted over whatever situation you needed to handle? Probably not.  Unfortunately, the first reaction to being stressed is to take short and shallow breaths, which can create a dangerous cycle of anxiety leading to less oxygen intake leading to more anxiety, and so on.  Given the well-documented link between oxygen levels and academic performance, taking a few deep breaths before and during a test is not a bad way to increase the probability of a higher score.
  2. Deep breaths calm our nerves, literally. Deep breathing has an important effect on the nervous system.  To put it very simply, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) controls our automatic bodily functions (it’s like the autopilot that takes over when we are resting or sleeping), while the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for what is known as the “fight or flight” response.  I’m sure you can imagine which one has taken the reigns when test day arrives.   When we breathe deeply, the calming PNS is stimulated, helping to soothe the effects of the jittery SNS.  This allows the heartbeat to slow down and adrenaline to stop flowing, giving a test-taker an opportunity to approach the test with a calmer brain and body.
  3. An instant muscle relaxer…no prescription necessary. When we are stressed, our muscles will automatically tense up—think about the evolutionary benefit of allowing us to attack predators quickly.  Given that the only threats in the exam room are incorrect answer choices, muscle tension is not so handy in this situation.  It reduces blood flow to the body, and most importantly, to the brain.  Chronic tension can also cause pain, muscle spasms, and just general discomfort (which is the last thing that a student needs when sitting through a 3-hour test).  Deep breathing brings attention to the body, pointing out areas of tension and causing the breather to automatically relax tense areas.  A calmer body will also (even subconsciously) affect the emotional state of a test-taker, allowing for an increased ability to focus and deal effectively with difficult academic material.
  4. The gift of being present.  If you really look at it, what makes us anxious is never what is happening right now, in this current moment.  It is always our fear of what will happen in the future (sometimes activated by negative events from our past) that makes us worry.  Focusing on the breath is one of the quickest ways to get re-centered in the moment where we are currently residing rather than in the dismal illusion of the future that we see in a moment of panic.  Generally speaking, once we are able to stay in the current moment, we have a clearer perspective and understanding that everything is going to be okay.  When it comes to testing, a few deep breaths can save a panicked student from the ridiculous (although seemingly very real) nightmare of being disowned by her parents for forgetting the meaning of fractional exponents, putting her back into the reality that one problem will not ruin her chances of getting into high school and allowing her to continue with the rest of the exam.

Hopefully you now have a better understanding of why those yogis always come out of class all blissed out, and more importantly, how deep breathing can help your student tackle the ISEE more effectively.  There are many different relaxation methods and deep breathing techniques out there, and we hope that you will find some that work for your student…and it may not hurt for you to use them yourself every now and then! Your child will probably also thank you for doing so.)

At Unlocking Potential, we believe in breathing!  Our instructors look for any and all ways to empower our students both academically and emotionally, and we can definitely help your child to find techniques that will help with relaxation and testing anxiety.  So take a deep breath and click here to set up a free consultation.  You’ll breathe easier knowing you put your child in the right hands.

Waiting with bated breath,

Jenni and Erin

P.S. Are ISEE time limits putting a limit on your child’s scores?  Our next newsletter will deal with how to effectively tackle time limits.

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