Breathing Techniques Reduce Test Anxiety and Increase Performance

Let’s End the Stress Mess

Article Highlights

  • Relaxing breathing lowers anxiety, relieves tension and reduces pain
  • Slow, relaxed breathing reverses the stress response and may help you relax before a big test, talk or meeting
  • Focused breathing keeps your mind in the present, rather than worrying about the future

Have you ever been disappointed with a test score because you knew you could have done better but were just so nervous you didn’t do your best?

How about on a job interview, or when giving an important presentation?


When we are anxious or nervous our breathing changes from deep diaphragmatic breaths to shallow chest breathing.  This kind of breathing restricts oxygen flow to the cells of the body and may cause drowsiness, irritability, and even headaches.

On the other hand, breathing in a slow, regular, or conscious manner can help to reverse the effects of the stress response.

Deep Breathing Techniques

Deep breathing techniques have been used for years to help with many stress-producing conditions from the pain of childbirth to the pressures of sports or the performing arts.

This is because anxiety (which produces shallow breathing) intensifies pain and lowers performance. Relaxing breathing lowers anxiety, relieves tension, and reduces pain.

Focusing on your breath also brings your mind back to what is happening now, instead of worrying about what might happen in the future. Fear of future events tightens muscles and restricts blood flow to areas that need it now, like the brain. This can reduce performance whether it is on the field, court, or testing center.

“By mastering breathing techniques, students can control the effects of situational anxiety, thereby achieving a heightened state of awareness; increase their concentration; and become less easily distracted. These benefits from controlled natural breathing allow for optimal performance and maximal achievement on tests and essentially enhance the overall quality of life.”1

So next time you find yourself in a tense situation, try some relaxation breathing techniques to help limit the negative effects of stress so you can perform your best. They can be very effective and don’t take a lot of time.

Guided Relaxation Exercises

Many people prefer a relaxation download because it has music that drowns out distractions and helps your brain move from the beta brainwave activity to the alpha and other lower levels of brainwaves where optimal relaxation and restorative rest can occur in a short period of time.

It also has directions to help you focus on your breathing which keeps your mind in the here and now rather than wandering off thinking about future events.

If you are interested, I provide dozens of guided relaxation exercises in my online course RELEASE. They are very easy to follow and can put you in a more relaxed state in less than 10 minutes. i find the guided audio very easy to follow and can reset my mood in a positive way for the rest of the day.

However, if you would rather do one on your own, here’s one to try.

Restful Breathing Exercise
(An excerpt from “The World is Not a Stressful Place”)

Begin by closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing. Don’t try to change anything yet, just tune into your rhythmic breathing pattern. Keep your attention on your breath. If you notice yourself thinking of other things, gently bring your thoughts back to your breathing. You may want to place your hands on your stomach.

After a few minutes of attentive breathing, begin to change your breathing pattern by allowing your breath to go down as deep as possible into the lowest reaches of your lungs. When you do this your stomach will naturally move outward. Don’t concern yourself with how quickly or slowly you inhale and exhale. Just focus on the depth of your inhalations and the ease of your exhalations.

Notice your hands, if they are resting on your stomach, moving out as you inhale and moving back in as you exhale.
To help you maintain your focus on this deep, slow breathing, use this counting method:

Start counting backward from twenty (or whatever number you choose). When you inhale, say the number “twenty.” When you exhale, say the word “relax.” Inhale again and say the number “nineteen.” On the next exhalation, say, “relax.” Continue down this way until you reach zero.

If you notice your mind start to wander (it very likely will), gently bring your thoughts back to the relaxing rhythm of your breathing and your counting. Your breathing will naturally become slower and deeper as you do this.

You may increase the effect by holding the breath between inhalation and exhalation. When you inhale, say the word “twenty.” Hold your breath for three or four seconds. Then begin to exhale slowly. Once all of the air is expelled, pause briefly before your next inhalation.

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