Your teacher walks in. Surprise! Today, you
will be taking a pop quiz. Let’s survey the room and take in the different
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
desk 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 unexpectantly or a tiger
is chasing us. However, a pop quiz should not be classified as
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
Step 5: Repeat until you are relaxed and
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