Study: Mindfulness breathing reduces anxiety during test taking

Both mindfulness breathing and cognitive reappraisal are effective methods to curb test taking anxiety, according to a study published in PLoS ONE. However, mindfulness breathing may be the more effective of the two methods.

Test taking common from childhood all the way into adulthood. Having anxiety around test taking can lead to a negative impact on learning, is a major cause for underachievement, and prevents some students from reaching their academic potential. It is estimated that 20% to 40% of test takers suffer from anxiety related to test-taking. It is important to research an effective way of dealing with test anxiety. While in the past therapy has been attempted to alleviate the stress of test taking, recently it has been suggested that test-taking is not a disorder (and therefore does not require therapy) but rather an emotional state.

Researchers examined mindfulness techniques, as past research suggests “paying attention to anxiety-related sensations and thoughts can lead to reductions in the emotional reactivity typically elicited by anxiety symptoms.” Based on past research showing the efficacy of repeated experiences, this current study was designed to use repeated practice sessions during a period of one week (instead of a single practice session) for highly anxious students. This study examined the efficacy of daily mindful breathing practices in reducing test anxiety.

Thirty-six highly anxious South Korean university students participated in the study. Participants were assigned to three groups: mindfulness breathing, cognitive reappraisal, and the control with no treatment. All participants completed baseline screening measures. Both the mindfulness breathing group and the cognitive reappraisal group were given a guided session before being asked to practice their training technique for half an hour every day for the next seven days. Each day, participants completed a daily worksheet about their experiences. This worksheet was sent via mobile picture to researchers, who provided feedback and encouragement to participants. After completing seven total training sessions (one guided session and six at home), participants of the mindfulness breathing and cognitive reappraisal groups completed post-training measures. Participants in the control group completed the baseline measures on the first day and returned on the eighth day to complete the post-training measures. The post-training measures examined test anxiety, positive thoughts, and positive affect.

This study found both mindfulness breathing and cognitive reappraisal practices significantly reduced anxiety in participants. Also, participants who practiced mindfulness breathing showed increased positive automatic thoughts over time, compared to the two other groups (cognitive reappraisal and control group). It is thought that the decentering aspect of both mindfulness breathing and cognitive reappraisal allow people to “gain a sense of mastery over their thoughts and emotions and feel able to perceive them as transient mental events, rather than to identify with them or to believe that thoughts and emotions are accurate reflections of the self or reality.” This helps to stop the self-criticism and anxiety from negative thinking patterns.

Results suggest that mindfulness breathing may be more effective than cognitive reappraisal for test taking anxiety. Focusing on the present moment through mindfulness may help people make a cognitive shift in thoughts to those that are more positive. Mindfulness may have also helped participants to objectively see their thoughts and emotions, rather than examine them through experience, as cognitive reappraisal practices. It is important to note the limitation of the small sample size of the study, as well as the study’s dependence on self-reporting. Future studies should examine other mindfulness techniques to help with test anxiety, and also account for the two limitations mentioned above.