Calming Anxiety Report (Reports for Schools)

Report by Alice Ashwell, Certified HeartMath Coach – Cape Town

Reflections on a school based programme.


Calming Exam Anxiety is a five-session programme based on a solution-focused coaching approach that uses emotion-regulation techniques and technology developed by the HeartMath® Institute. It aims to support students experiencing test and exam anxiety and to provide them with tools to manage this state. Although the programme focuses on test and exam anxiety, the methods also enable clients to respond more calmly to stress in other areas of their lives, including social and performance settings.

Alice Ashwell offered the Calming Exam Anxiety programme to a school during the second term of 2016. The head of counselling at the school invited students who could benefit from the programme to participate, and the school provided scheduling support and a venue.

During the first course, four students participated:

  • Student A, Grade 9: anxiety and self-criticism were impacting on tests and exams, musical performance, life balance, confidence and mood.
  • Student B, Grade 8: anxiety and self-criticism were impacting on tests and exams, sense of self, classroom behaviour and relationships.
  • Student C, Grade 9: having been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), the mother said that the student displayed stop-start behaviour in exams. Stress, self-doubt and a fear of failure detracted from the student’s ability to focus and perform.
  • Student D, Grade 9: having not written exams before, this student was very anxious about the mid-year exams.

Among other things, the sessions included:

  • introducing students to the physiology of stress and anxiety, in order to assist them to understand (and normalise) their experience of anxiety;
  • practising simple techniques that students could use both to calm themselves during stressful situations, and to establish a calmer ‘default state’;
  • monitoring their state of stress or ease using HeartMath equipment; and
  • encouraging students to reflect on their own experiences and to ask their peers how theycoped with anxiety, and how best to approach study and exams.

In their evaluations, the students all reported an improvement in their attitude towards and ability to study for and write exams. As one student stated: Just do it! Don’t worry about them or hate them. They observed that the HeartMath techniques had enabled them to calm themselves and release stress before, during and after exams. This had helped them to study, focus (concentrate), think, remember what they had learnt, work more efficiently, and feel more positive. It had also enabled them to get over feelings of disappointment or frustration with themselves after exams when they noticed ‘silly mistakes’, and to realise that they could learn from these experiences.

One student commented that he had stopped feeling dyslexic about maths symbols. Another stated that she had overcome a sense of anxiety about not having enough time in exams by simply stopping, breathing, calming down and assessing the time allocation realistically.

One student commented that she had been able to shift from seeing exams as something designed to catch [her] out, to a challenge [she] could rise to. This student had also become more positive about science, and found that increased optimism resulted in an improvement in her marks. In the end she stated: I loved the exams! I was no longer confused or spiralling downwards. I wasn’t freaking out. I was curious.

Another student expressed the shift quite dramatically! I am less ‘aargh’ … passes out … and more ‘hmmm … OK, cool … focus.’ He insightfully observed that because he didn’t get stuck in negative thoughts [he] could concentrate on his studies. He managed to finish exams more quickly because he could think better.


The tools and techniques developed by the HeartMath Institute have been proven internationally to be highly effective at enabling people to manage stress, build resilience, and improve performance in all areas of life. The Calming Exam Anxiety programme uses these approaches to assist scholars and students to cope better with the stresses of tests and exams. However, as can be seen, the benefits of the techniques have positive effects in many other areas of their lives.

Adolescence is often a time of great upheaval. Hormonal changes, social pressures, high expectations to perform, and a particularly active fear circuit in the brain, all combine to make anxiety a common experience. But as this report illustrates, there is hope.

Simple techniques can assist adolescents to quieten the stress response, reduce their anxiety, and allow their still-developing brain to wire in calmer, more measured responses to the challenges of growing up. The programme offers young people insights into the biological basis of anxiety, helping to demystify and normalise this ancient survival response. In a safe and honouring environment, students are heard, supported and encouraged to embrace their emotions with equanimity, and to face the challenges of growing up with courage.

For more information, contact Alice at

BEST HOPES – student ‘before & after’ ratings

The students rated themselves on a number-line during each session, indicating where they felt they were in relation to their ‘best hope’ for the course. Their best hopes and self-reported shifts between the first and last sessions were:

  • Student A: To be able to achieve but at the same time not stress about everything (1-10)
  • Student B: To be able to function during exams – no stupid pills (2-9)
  • Student C: To write a test with less anxiety (2-8)
  • Student D: To not have so much anxiety so I can do my best (6-9).

All the students mentioned that they found the HeartMath stress management techniques helpful. One student said that the HeartMath games were particularly helpful, and another appreciated the opportunity to reflect on things, and to connect with her heart. One specifically mentioned the coaching conversations, and two highlighted the emails received in between sessions.

  • Two teachers reported spontaneously to the school counsellor that they had noticed changes in two students, including less performance anxiety in Music, and greater participation in the English class.Comments received from parents included the following:
  • Just want to say a big thank you for the life changing experience you took [my daughter] on. I am so proud of how she has embraced the whole process and committed to it. … The way she handled her exams just amazed me.
  • Thank you very much for your guidance. [My daughter] has managed to cope with her first set of exams, and surprised herself by growing stronger as a result. I think what originally was terrifying for her actually has turned out to be rather interesting, and not as intense as she had expected. It has made a big difference!
  • [My son’s] anxiety is much improved this term and I am so grateful for the work that you did with him.
  • Oh yesterday was such an amazingly great day … [my son] got in the car after exams and said everything went well. There was one question in the Science paper which he didn’t know the answer to, but then he simply thought, “Whatever, just too bad,” and moved on. Victory number 1! And then he said, even if he gets 40%, he tried his best and that is all that matters. Victory number 2! Then as we were driving he said: “Mom wait, let’s just high five and celebrate what a great day this was. I did so well!” Victory number 3! I cannot begin to tell how wonderful that was to hear. So thank you! It had a major impact on the rest of his day, keen as a bee to study and just happy, happy, relaxed kid.

It was clear from the coaching conversations and the course evaluation that students had noticed improvements in other areas of their lives, in addition to tests and exams. Amongst other things, these included:

  • a greater awareness of the impact of their mental attitude on performance;
  • being able to calm themselves so they felt less stressed, e.g. I could calm myself down morequickly, compared to the past when I used to stay stressed for a week without a break;
  • preventing stress building up while finishing a project, e.g. I spoke more positively to myself and felt a sense of perspective. I slowed down and worked more deliberately;
  • significant improvements in their attitudes towards themselves, and an ability to quieten the inner critic, e.g. I have a voice in my head that is always criticising me. I call him ‘Jerry’. Today I’m going to rename him. He was like ‘Jerry Hitler’ – but now he’s ‘Jerry Churchill’. Now he can encourage me instead of being mean to me!
  • a breakthrough in musical performances: one student used the techniques to calm herself and shift from self-criticism to encouragement during jazz band rehearsals; she let go of self- consciousness and started improvising beautifully;
  • preparing for sports matches, and behaving more calmly on the field;
  • developing a greater sense of perspective and the ability to bounce back afterdisappointments;
  • improvements in their ability to fall asleep, and in the quality of their sleep; and
  • positive shifts in relationships, e.g. greater tolerance and flexibility, getting over arguments more quickly, and being able to shift from anger to care.One of the most moving comments in the final evaluation read: Thank you, THANK you, THANK YOU. You have changed my life. You have opened my eyes to what my heart and soul are telling me, not just what my brain and others are telling me.

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