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What is Cortisol and How Can it Trigger Test Anxiety?

Your test day is fast approaching. You’ve decided to take a timed practice test tonight to see how you’ve been progressing. But, when you sit down to start your exam, your brain is flooded with worrisome questions:

What if I hit a hard question and I don’t know the answer?
What if I don’t finish the test?
What if my score isn’t what I expect it to be?

Suddenly, your heart starts racing and your palms are sweaty. You can’t think about anything but your fears.


This is what is know as “physiological hyperarousal,” the body’s reaction to heightened anxiety. It happens when there is a triggering of the sympathetic nervous system- the mechanism that governs your body’s fight-or-flight response to physical danger.

When that happens, the body produces an excess of cortisol, a stress hormone.

What is Cortisol?

Cortisol is a steroid produced in the body when the sympathetic nervous system is triggered by a stressor.

It is released by the adrenal gland during periods of stress to modulate blood pressure and glucose levels. This is your body’s way of preparing for a stressor.

Cortisol Levels and Test Anxiety

Cortisol levels can increase in times of actual physical danger, or even when there is merely a perceived threat of danger. (Conneely & Hughes, 2010).

On test day, there isn’t a physical danger per se, but there is a perceived threat: not finishing an exam under timed pressure. This fear is commonly known as test anxiety.

Lowering Cortisol Levels with Non-Invasive Interventions

Teaching professionals have test anxiety interventions at their disposal. However, these interventions can often be limited to study skills training and content mastery.

However, our highly-trained instructors are also well-versed in the benefits of relaxation therapy in lowering cortisol levels to reduce test anxiety.

Test anxiety interventions train you to replace your anxious thoughts and behaviors with positive thoughts and relaxation techniques, thereby reducing cortisol and test anxiety levels in students.

Yoga is one of the most common relaxation techniques. Hatha yoga, the form most popular in America, focuses on manipulating the body in order to gain strength and control. It involves posing, which requires stretching and flexibility. Accompanying the poses is a unique breathing method called pranayama. This form of trained breathing opens the lungs, relaxes the body, and clears the mind.

Many studies have shown the potential benefits of yoga practice. Specifically, hatha yoga sessions have been shown to lower the secretion of cortisol, as well as perceived feelings of stress over time (West, Otte, Geher, Johnson, & Mohr, 2004).

Don’t Stigmatize Alternative Treatments

Yoga is categorized as an alternative treatment, but that is no reason to ignore its benefits. Relaxation training has been shown to be an effective intervention for test anxiety.

Yoga is a noninvasive, easy technique to clear the mind and relax the body, making its use a test anxiety relief technique a logical one.

Thinking Ahead

Start rethinking how you think about test anxiety. Make relaxing part of your regular, pre-study routine.

Try taking ten minutes before every study session for some yoga, meditation, or breathing exercises, and watch your test anxiety wash away.


For more powerful tools to supercharge every stage of your tutoring process, schedule a free phone consult with one of our testing experts today!

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