Teaching and Learning Strategies


Fear triggers a response in part of the brain called the amygdala. When the amygdala is aroused, it overrides logic (Westen, etal). As a political science professor, I am fascinated by Westen’s study about how fear-based politics affect the brain. As someone who occasionally teaches University 101 and who was recently a college student myself, it occurred to me that this logic-interfering fear also affects the brain when a student sits down to take a test. This is the mechanics of test anxiety. Fear interferes with logic, making it difficult to think clearly. Then, worry about possibly failing the test heightens fear, making logical thinking even more difficult.

Stress, pain and fear are all related, as any one of these can cause the others, and all produce similar responses in the body and brain. In 1991, an injured back was causing me immense pain. I refused to take strong pain medicine because I had young children at the time - I found that the pain relievers made it impossible for me to give proper attention to them. Further, I had lost the only family income that we had when I injured my back. Needless to say, I was stressed and afraid. Fortunately, a wonderful therapist taught me a technique that was intended to help me “manage” my pain, and also to reduce my stress. It worked. I was once again able to think clearly and to function almost normally in spite of the pain that I endured. This technique is still endorsed by hospitals today (UMMC).

The technique is a full-body relaxation exercise that can be conducted in moments while sitting at a desk. Further, with regular use and practice, one can actually avoid “stress-spots,” such as at the base of the skull, where muscles knot up and cause pain at the end of a stressful day. So, one day last fall I taught this technique to my UNV 101 students and told them to use it before exams. Several students later reported that the technique helped them, and two students wrote in their final reflection-paper that this technique was the most important thing they had learned all semester.

I would like to give a presentation to demonstrate this simple but powerful, at-your-desk relaxation technique to other faculty. I will explain how the logical functioning of the brain is greatly diminished when one is experiencing fear. I will show how I explain this to my students, and the amusing and yet effective way that I demonstrate the technique and teach them how to make use of it. I will also make suggestions about how one might conduct a study about the effects of this technique on student test scores.


Westen, Drew, et al. 2006. “Neural Bases of Motivated Reasoning: An MRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Partisan Political Judgment in the 2004 U.S. Presidential Election,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Vol. 18, No. 11: 1947–1958.

University of Maryland Medical Center. 2007. “Sleep Disorders Center: Relaxation Techniques.” Online at