NOTE: Those of us who are not students can use this by substituting test anxiety with extreme nervousness during high pressure situations (public talks, meetings with a boss, high-pressure deadlines at work, etc.)
In high pressure situations, such as exams or performances, our minds have a tendency to try looking into the future. What if this doesn’t go well? What if I fail? What if the results make me look bad? What if…
All these “what if” scenarios about results are a preoccupation with the future in disguise. They distract us from the task at hand and transport us into an unknown future. If we let our thoughts and feelings of worry and distress build up in our minds, they will inevitably manifest in our bodies in the form of tights jaws, faster heartbeats, dry mouth, etc. Recall the cycle we sketched in “A New School Year…An Old Habit”, below, showing what happens in the middle of an exam or exam-like scenarios when the panic response turns on.
Our insides fill up so quickly as the initial future-oriented thoughts snowball into a full blown preoccupation with the possibility of failure so that there is no space left in the mind for thoughts that are needed right now. The mind becomes so cluttered that our bodies also feel suffocated and vice-versa. We blank out. We can’t think logically. We lose our capacity to recall basic facts.
So, how can we prevent, or at least slow down, this snowballing process to save and free up some space in our minds? We do this be creating a route for the fearful thoughts and feelings to leave our mind and body right through and out of the heart!
Try this brief meditation technique “Decluttering the Mind and Heart”:
- Close your eyes. As you breathe in, acknowledge all of your future-oriented thoughts and related feelings hindering your ability to think. Examples of thoughts include: “I’m not going to be able to do this. Last time I did horribly, what if I fail this time?” Examples of feelings include feelings of desperation, feeling like giving up, etc. On the exhale, imagine all of these bottled up thoughts and feelings drop down into your chest. A thousand birds are waiting to pick them up. As soon as you exhale and the thoughts and feelings drop down into your heart, a thousand birds pick them up and fly away, flapping their strong wings. The birds fly right out of your chest and into the world and travel so far that you cannot even see them anymore. Your worries, frustration, and self-deprecating thoughts leave along with the birds, creating space in your mind for the present moment.
- If the bird imagery does not work effectively for you, bring your hands together in front of you, as if you are creating a bowl for water using your palms. Imagine your thoughts and feelings flow into your hands. On the next exhalation, the thoughts and feelings leave your hands and disappear into the air.
In creating a route for overwhelming and anxious thoughts and feelings out of your mind and body, you create more space for the thoughts that you need in the moment. If you are taking a test, you may be able to think about the questions in front of you with greater ease now. If you are racing in a track meet, you may be able to more easily access your coach’s advice. If you are giving a speech, this will create space for you to retrieve information.