Your teacher walks in. Surprise! Today, you will be taking a pop quiz. Let’s survey the room and take in the different responses.
Some students will object and feel a rush of anger. Without much success, they will list the reasons as to why the teacher should postpone the quiz. “We are not prepared.” “You did not cover this material.” “This is unfair!”
Some students will come down with a fever suddenly and text their parents to check them out of school.
Some students will become very quiet and feel a rush of panic. It seems that all of the air in the room has left. Their eyes will enlarge, and for some reason, they feel as if they are having difficulty recalling the material that was discussed just yesterday!
Some students will begin to clear off their desks and appear ready for the task set before them.
Perhaps, you have experienced each of the responses described above, and you are wondering how to be the student that is prepared and calm, allowing you to perform optimally under pressure. By familiarizing ourselves with the nature of the brain, we can influence our responses to the external stimuli we face each day.
Our brains have a radar, called the amygdala, that filters our experiences and determines if the experience feels safe or unsafe. Therefore, the amygdala plays a powerful role in our day-to-day responses by receiving information from your senses and sending a message to the hypothalamus. If our radar has deemed something unsafe, the sympathetic nervous
system or the “gas pedal” is activated. Hundreds of hormones are released at this moment! We begin to sweat. Our heart rate increases in order to pump blood to the muscles, and we breathe quicker in order to bring oxygen to the brain. This is wonderful if say, a car is coming towards us unexpectedly, or a tiger is chasing us. However, a pop quiz should not be classified as life-threatening.
The first three types of students described have experienced the gas pedal being floored. Fight, flight, or freeze are the three most commonly discussed responses to stress. When prepared to fight, one might experience clenched fists, a stiff jaw, crying, and anger. When ready to flee, one may notice their eyes darting from side to side, restless limbs, or
feeling fidgety. If the freeze response is in play, then the breath becomes restricted, and one may be unable to perform.
However, our bodies are programmed to maintain stability. The “brake pedal” of our autonomic nervous system is called the parasympathetic nervous system, which can be activated through breathing techniques. One breathing technique, known as four by four breathing, can be a helpful tool for students who struggle to perform under pressure. It is
relatively simple to follow.
Step 1: Inhale for four seconds
Step 2: Hold the breath for four seconds
Step 3: Exhale for four seconds
Step 4: Hold your lungs empty for four seconds
Step 5: Repeat until you are relaxed and focused.
This technique allows you to control the fight, flight, or freeze response and transfer control back to your parasympathetic nervous system. Students should utilize this technique to retain control and focus under pressure. Remember, you always have a “brake pedal”.