Thursday, April 7, 2016

Test Anxiety Tips: Relaxation Kata

Even for students that don't suffer from math anxiety, test anxiety can still be a major problem. Test anxiety ranges from panic attacks to feeling comfortable with the material only to blank once you're faced with the exam. It may not manifest as actual feelings of dread and fear, but these sort of things all fall under the umbrella of "test anxiety".

Some of my students say that it shouldn't matter how they do on a timed test as long as they understand the material outside the test. This is a bit of a bait-and-switch. There's rarely a life that exists that didn't need to be able to perform under pressure at some point in time. If you struggle when the pressure's on, you won't always be able to lessen the pressure, so you need to develop strategies to overcome your own physiology and mentality.

To that end, I present the relaxation kata.

If you're a student of martial arts, you probably already know what a kata is. For those that aren't, it's basically a series of prescribed moves. Calling up different kata is to immediately fall into each exercise one after another until complete.

Now, when you think of relaxing, you may not be thinking of strenuous exercise—that's OK, I won't be asking you to get up and jump around. A relaxation kata is primarily a mental exercise, and with practice can be as quick as a few moments.

Everyone's relaxation kata should be tailored to the individual, so I won't be telling you exactly what you should do at every step of the kata, but I will be giving you general ideas and suggestions on how to build your own relaxation kata and explain my general process. You don't need to incorporate every part and feel free to change out what you feel might work better or worse for you.

One last word of warning before we get into it: being relaxed may not be the best thing for you before a test. Personally, I work better under pressure and the more stressed I am, the more effective, more intelligent, and more ready I am. If this is you, then you should still have a relaxation kata, but for different reasons. It can be an effective way to calm down if you feel yourself getting overly emotional (angry, panicked, etc) and it's fantastic to do as a pre-sleep exercise.

(1). Image.
An image is your first anchor to the state of relaxation. This should be anything that brings you peace. Many people find images of landscapes, portraits of close friends and other loved ones, cute animals, etc. I don't necessarily recommend a slideshow, but call to mind one of these images and focus on how it makes you feel.
For me, it's a pastel drawing I did as a kid of a sunset. It's not the most beautiful thing in the world—I never achieved what you'd call proficiency in pastels—but it does the job. If I think of this picture, it immediately makes me change gears, and that's the point.
The first few times you do this, it probably helps to have the image queued up to assist your focus. But the goal is to eventually reach the level of serenity that comes from the image in your head instead of the image on your computer screen or in a portrait. If you have to lock yourself away to practice your relaxation kata, that's OK, but in action you need to be able to call it to mind anywhere and instantaneously.
I really don't recommend a series of images for this, and I'd stay away from more vague ideas of images like, "Imagine a serene landscape with mountains and a lake." This has its place in meditation practices in general, but our goal is to effect an instantaneous change in mood, not to go on a journey through our mind palace.
(2) Music.
Music is your second anchor to your calm state, so it should be no surprise that music has the power to instantaneously change your mood, and your goal is to find the song that effects the change you want. Again, our goal is to relax; not to psych up and not to make you sleepy. For some people, this may be classical piano (it is for me), and other that might have the opposite effect. I know at least a few people that have told me that classical music makes them angry.
When selecting your song, it shouldn't be something that is going to make you want to dance or sing along. It needs to be a song that makes you feel the way that you want to feel for your relaxation kata. For me, the piece of music that does this the best is the piano version of DeBussy's "Clair de Lune". Here's the song on YouTube:

As with the image, so with the music: as you practice your relaxation kata, you should progress from (1) needing to listen to the song to (2) thinking about the song to (3) feeling the song's effects and emotions instantaneously from your mental representation of the song and its place in your mind.
(3). Breathe.
This step is the last step in what I'll recommend should always be a part of your kata. Every step after this one is great to include, but tend to be a little more involved. The first two steps can be near-instantaneous with enough practice, and breathing is something that you should be doing pretty regularly.
Taking the time to focus on your breathing has immediate effects on your physiology. If you sit up straight and breathe deep and slowly right now as you're reading this, you will feel what a difference this can make. It doesn't matter how you inhale for the purpose of this kata, as with every step, whatever works best for you, but I do recommend breathing to fill your diaphragm.
The basic idea here is that air wants to move from areas of high pressure to area of low pressure. When you expand the diaphragm (a muscle below your rib cage) it creates an empty space that brings air through your lungs completely, then compressing the diaphragm expels that air completely. This is an important practice in athletics and in singing or public speaking, but we are most interested in flooding our system with as much oxygen as we can.
If diaphragmatic breathing is difficult for you, here's a video talking about an exercise that you can do to help you. This exercise is not part of your kata, but it is practice to be able to perform the kata.

Take at least 10 seconds to focus on diaphragmatic breathing as you are falling into the emotions and mood generated by your image and music. If you are performing an extended kata where you will take more time, breathe deeply throughout.
(4). Muscle relaxing.
There are plenty of things that you can do to ease muscle tension and reduce pain, this isn't going to be any of those techniques. If you're familiar with meditation, you'll be familiar with what we intend here. What you're going to do is individually target each muscle in your body and just let it relax.
If you've never done this before, you'll probably be surprised at how much tension you actually hold in your muscles that you have control over. I always start with my neck and shoulders and individually focus on each muscle in my body moving down. This takes a little bit of time (although you can decrease that with practice) and you generally want to be in a relaxed position already (so you don't fall over).
When I'm in public, I will either skip this entirely or focus only on some muscle groups like my neck, which always holds a lot of tension. This is also a unique step in that it has a definite start and finish. You may want to perform this step first as a way to warm up that state of relaxation, or you may want to wait until you've already achieved mental clarity and now want your physical body to follow suit.
(5). Memory.
In general, I don't expect we have a lot of relaxing memories. We tend to remember exciting things much more frequently. The sheer quality of being memorable means that it probably wasn't relaxing. It's important if you're going to go down this avenue in your relaxation kata that you don't get overwhelmed with nostalgia or melancholy.
More so than the first two steps of the kata, it may be helpful to keep this one at the general level. If we delve too deeply into memories, we have a tendency to run down an entire chain of them (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for instance . . . ). Instead, find a memory that inspires the feeling that you are going for. The memory itself probably is not a memory of a relaxing time (although if you have a memory of a really great nap, then by all means, go that route), but you probably have a memory of a series of relaxing moments.
For instance, if you like to grill, then you probably have knowledge of dozens of times you grilled and ate lunch or dinner. It was probably the summer, it was sunny, warm . . . in a word: relaxing. If you can call to mind the series of vague memories you have on this topic and focus on the feelings and emotions that you feel when you think about that, then you'll be a long way towards soothing your anxieties. On the other hand, they might have a tendency to spiral off. For instance, the grilling memories might have a tendency to make you hungry, which would not relax most people.
These memories are your third anchor to the state of relaxation. 
(6). Mantra.
I know many people that find mantras extremely effective. If you have a mantra that relaxes you or aids in focus and concentration, then it should definitely be a part of your kata. In fact, the phrase or word that you choose for your relaxation kata has the added benefit of giving you another anchor in the state of relaxation for your mind to be tied.
These anchors, like the image, music, and memory before, are ways to hack your brain to instantly fall back into that state of relaxation that we are trying to achieve, all with the purpose of reducing anxieties and preventing/stopping panic.
If you're unsure what a mantra is, it's basically a phrase or word that is repeated over and over again. It can be a hymn, a lyric, a desire, or anything that helps you focus. If you don't have an idea of where to start, then try the following: as you are utilizing your other anchors, repeat the word "calm".
Calm. Calm. Calm. Calm. Calm. Calm. Calm. Calm. Calm. Calm. Calm. Calm. Calm.
Breathe as you repeat the word. Calm. It doesn't need to be spoken aloud. Calm. Call to mind your image. Calm. Hear the music. Calm. Calm. Calm.
If you continue to use this mantra, then the word itself becomes your anchor. This is a basic idea of how mantras can be used as part of your relaxation kata. If this interests you, then find a mantra that works for you.
So those are the steps that we can take to build a relaxation kata. I've stayed away from using the word, "meditation", but in all honesty, following a relaxation kata is very similar to meditation in a lot of ways. This is just one tool that you can use to help reduce your anxieties, stress, and panic, and effect a change-of-mode for your brain.

Anyway, what do you think? Have you built your relaxation kata? If so, what images or pieces of music form your anchors? If you're interested in other techniques to reduce math anxiety that aren't necessarily as focused on your mental state, then please check out my "Overcoming Math Anxiety" book.