Brain freeze is something I think everyone has experienced at least once. It is when you blank during an exam or presentation, even though you KNOW you know your subject. Then, later that day or even the next day, it all starts flooding back into your brain as clear as daylight!

This most definitely happened to me on more than one, two or three occasions.

The common denominator seems to always be an overwhelming feeling of anxiety, panic or fear. Through HeartMath® we know that feelings such as these create chaos in our Autonomic Nervous System, influencing our Heart Rhythm pattern (also understood as Heart Rate Variability). A chaotic, incoherent Heart Rhythm pattern has an impact on the brain resulting in what HeartMath calls “cortical inhibition”……i.e. our “analytical third brain” is not able to function at its’ best, creating that feeling of our brain being “out of order”, “brain freeze” or simply put, “going blank”! (more info on HeartMath® and HRV)

As I started writing this article on going blank in exams an email popped in to my inbox directing me to a blog on the very same subject! Energetic synchronicity showing off. I could not have written the article better myself and felt the need to share it. I have adapted Erik Peper’s content for relevance of this blog.

The most important points to take out of reading this are:

  • Don’t underestimate the importance of your breath. Deeps rhythmic breaths have an immediate calming effect on your physiology, in turn creating a sense of calm for your body and mind.
  • Be aware of your mental talk. Your attitude and self talk can be crippling to your true potential.
  • Good quality sleep is vital for boosting your resilience and energy to study well and write exams well.


Do you blank out on exams?

Improve school performance with breathing

Author: Erik Peper

“I opened the exam booklet and I went blank.”

“When I got anxious, I took a slow breath, reminded myself that I would remember the material. I successfully passed the exam.”

“I was shocked, when I gasped, I could not remember my girlfriend’s name and then I could not remember my mother’s name. When breathed slowly, I had no problem and easily remembered both”

Blanking out the memorized information that you have studied on an exam is a common experiences of students even if they worked hard (Arnsten, Mazure, & Sinha, 2012).    Fear and poor study habits often contribute to forgetting the material (Fitkov-Norris, & Yeghiazarian, 2013). Most students study while listening to music, responding to text message, or monitoring social network sites such as, Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest (David et al., 2015).. Other students study the material for one class then immediately shift and study material from another class. While at home they study while sitting or lying on their bed. Numerous students have internalised the cultural or familial beliefs that maths is difficult and don’t have the aptitude for the material (Cherif, Movahedzadeh, Adams, & Dunning, 2013). These beliefs and dysfunctional study habits limit learning (Neal, Wood, & Drolet, 2013).


Blanking out during an exam or presentation is usually caused by fear or performance anxiety triggering a stress response (Hodges, 2015; Spielberger, Anton, & Bedell, 2015). At that moment, the brain is flooded with thoughts such as, I can’t do it,”  “I will fail,” “I used to know this, but…”, or “What will people think?” The body responds with a defense reaction as if being threatened and survival is at stake.  The emotional reactivity and anxiety overwhelms cognition, resulting in an automatic ‘freeze’ response of breath holding or very shallow breathing. At that moment, you blank out (Hagenaars, Oitzl, & Roelofs, 2014; Sink et al., 2013; Von Der Embse, Barterian, & Segool, 2013). In research with more than 100 college students, students had significantly more self-reported anxiety and difficulty in solving math problems when gasping as compared to slow breathing as shown Figure 1 (Lee et al, 2016; Peper, Lee, Harvey & Lin, 2016).

“When I gasped, my mind went blank and I could not do the subtraction. When I breathed slowly, I had no problem doing the subtractions. I never realized that breathing had such a big effect upon my performance.”

20 year old college student

Effect of Breathing patterns on math difficulty and anxiety

To improve effective learning incorporate the following concepts when studying.

1. Approach learning with a question

When you begin to study the material or attend a class, ask yourself a question that you would like to be answered.  When you have a purpose, it is easier to stay emotionally present and remember the material (Osman, & Hannafin, 1994).

2. Process what you are learning with as many sensory cues as possible

Take hand written notes when reading the text or listening to your teacher. Afterwards meet with your friends in person, or on Skype and again discuss and review the materials.  As you discuss the materials, add comments to your notes.  Do not take notes on your computer because people can often type almost as quickly as someone speaks. The computer notes are much less processed and are similar to the experience of a court or medical transcriptionist where the information flows from the ears to the fingers without staying in between.  College students who take notes in class on a computer or tablets perform worse on exams than students who write notes. When you write your notes you have to process the material and extract and synthesis relevant concepts.

3. Review the notes and material before going to sleep

Research has demonstrated that whatever material is in temporary memory before going to sleep will be more likely be stored in long term memory (Gais et al., 2006Diekelmann et al., 2009).  When you study material is stored in temporary memory, and then when you study something else, the first material tends to be displaced by the more recent material. The last studied material is more likely stored in long term memory. When you watch a movie after studying, the movie content is preferentially stored in permanent memory during sleep. In addition, what is emotionally most important to you is usually stored first. Thus, instead of watching movies and chatting on social media, discuss and review the materials just before you go to sleep.

4. Learning is state dependent

Study and review the materials under similar conditions as you will be tested.  Without awareness the learned content is covertly associated with environmental, emotional, social and kinesthetic cues.  Thus when you study in bed, the material is most easily accessed while lying down. When you study with music, the music become retrieval trigger.  Without awareness the materials are encoded with the cues of lying down or the music played in the background.  When you come to the exam room, none of those cues are there, thus it is more difficult to recall the material (Eich, 2014).

5. Avoid interruptions

When studying each time you become distracted by answering a text message or responding to social media, your concentration is disrupted (Swingle, 2016). Imagine that learning is like scuba diving and the learning occurs mainly at the bottom. Each interruption forces you to go to the surface and it takes time to dive down again. Thus you learn much less than if you stayed at the bottom for the whole time period.

6. Develop study rituals

Incorporate a ritual before beginning studying and repeat it during studying such as three slow breaths (see below how to do Heart Focused BreathingTM).  The ritual can become the structure cue associated with the learned material. When you come to exam and you do not remember or are anxious, perform the same ritual which will allow easier access to the memory.

7. Change your internal language

What we say and believe is what we become. When you say, “I am stupid”, “I can’t do math,” or “It is too difficult to learn,” you become powerless which increases your stress and inhibits cognitive function.  Instead, change your internal language so that it implies that you can master the materials such as, “I need more time to study and to practice the material,”  “Learning just takes time and at this moment it may take a bit longer than for someone else,” or “I need a better tutor.”

8. Get good quality sleep

Good quality sleep will ensure you are able to process your information well and will also boost your energy levels and resilience the next day. If you try write an exam while exhausted, you will most definitely not perform as well as you could have. In comparison, being well rested will gives you more capacity to be well prepared mentally, emotionally and physically for your exam. Think of it this way, no matter how well you learnt and how well you know your subject, if you have no energy in your inner battery, if your tank is empty, you will not be able to focus, concentrate, decision make or problem solve as well as you could have. Practicing Heart Focused BreathingTM before you go to sleep helps you to quieten your mind and to calm your body. You will fall sleep faster and get good quality sleep. If you wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, do the technique again.

Heart Focused Breathing Technique
Heart Focused BreathingTM Technique
  1. Focus your attention in the area of the heart.
  2. Imagine your breath is flowing in and out of your heart or chest area.
  3. Breathe a little slower and deeper than usual.

(Suggestion: you can try breathing in to the count of 5 and out to the count of 5).  Do this for 30 seconds or more.

(Institute of HeartMath, 2012. The Inside Story)

When you take charge of your study habits and practice slower breathing during studying and test takingyou will experience a significant improvement in learning, remembering, accessing, and processing information.


Arnsten, A., Mazure, C. M., & Sinha, R. (2012). This is your brain in meltdown. Scientific American, 306(4), 48-53.

Cherif, A. H., Movahedzadeh, F., Adams, G. E., & Dunning, J. (2013). Why Do Students Fail?. Higher Learning, 227, 228.

David, P., Kim, J. H., Brickman, J. S., Ran, W., & Curtis, C. M. (2015). Mobile phone distraction while studying. new media & society, 17(10), 1661-1679.

Diekelmann, S., Wilhelm, I., & Born, J. (2009). The whats and whens of sleep-dependent memory consolidationSleep medicine reviews13(5), 309-321.

Eich, J. E. (2014). State-dependent retrieval of information in human episodic memory. Alcohol and Human Memory (PLE: Memory)2, 141.

Fitkov-Norris, E. D., & Yeghiazarian, A. (2013). Measuring study habits in higher education: the way forward?. In Journal of Physics: Conference Series (Vol. 459, No. 1, p. 012022). IOP Publishing.

Gais, S., Lucas, B., & Born, J. (2006). Sleep after learning aids memory recall. Learning & Memory13(3), 259-262.

Hagenaars, M. A., Oitzl, M., & Roelofs, K. (2014). Updating freeze: aligning animal and human research. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 47, 165-176.

Hodges, W. F. (2015). The psychophysiology of anxiety. Emotions and Anxiety (PLE: Emotion): New Concepts, Methods, and Applications, 12, 175.

Institute of HeartMath, 2012. The Inside Story: Understanding the Power of Feelings: The Heart-Brain Connection, 5th edition. HeartMath LLC: California, p 27.

Lee, S., Sanchez, J., Peper, E., & Harvey, R. (2016). Effect of Breathing Style on Math Problem Solving. Presented at the 47th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Seattle WA, March 9-12, 2016

Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Drolet, A. (2013). How do people adhere to goals when willpower is low? The profits (and pitfalls) of strong habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(6), 959.

Osman, M. E., & Hannafin, M. J. (1994). Effects of advance questioning and prior knowledge on science learning. The Journal of Educational Research,88(1), 5-13.

Peper, E., Lee, S., Harvey, R., & Lin, I-M. (2016). Breathing and math performance: Implication for performance and neurotherapy. NeuroRegulation, 3(4),142–149.

Spielberger, C. D., Anton, W. D., & Bedell, J. (2015). The nature and treatment of test anxiety. Emotions and anxiety: New concepts, methods, and applications, 317-344.

Sink, K. S., Walker, D. L., Freeman, S. M., Flandreau, E. I., Ressler, K. J., & Davis, M. (2013). Effects of continuously enhanced corticotropin releasing factor expression within the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis on conditioned and unconditioned anxiety. Molecular psychiatry, 18(3), 308-319.

Swingle, M. (2016). i-Minds: How cell phones, computers, gaming and social media are changing our brains, our behavior, and the evolution of our species. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers.

Von Der Embse, N., Barterian, J., & Segool, N. (2013). Test anxiety interventions for children and adolescents: A systematic review of treatment studies from 2000–2010. Psychology in the Schools, 50(1), 57-71.

*I thank Richard Harvey, PhD. for his constructive feedback and comments and Shannon Lee for her superb research.

** This blog was adapted from: Lee, S., Sanchez, J., Peper, E., & Harvey, R. (2016). Effect of Breathing Style on Math Problem Solving. Presented at the 47th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Seattle WA, March 9-12, 2016

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