My daughter is about to take the bar exam. She wants to learn relaxation skills and guided imagery for when she’s taking the test. But can’t anxiety be useful? Isn’t it good to have some? My daughter is about to take the Michigan bar exam. We’ve been debating the merits of whether she should learn relaxation skills and practice guided imagery for when she’s in the testing situation. She says she thinks it would help her. I’m concerned that there’s such a thing as being too relaxed during something like this. Can’t anxiety be useful? Isn’t it helpful to have some going in?
Diana’s Dad

Dear D.D.,
Thanks for the great question! Yes, there is such a thing as some people being too relaxed during times of a great performance demand - a test, an audition, a job interview or a sports competition, for instance. And, yes, anxiety can be useful, as long as it doesn’t show up in overwhelming amounts.

If your daughter were to be flooded by anxiety at the very thought of taking this bar exam, then major relaxation and self-regulation practice would certainly be in order, and she probably couldn’t overdo it.

But if she’s not dealing with distress like that, and is just after her best peak performance, then what she wants is to practice is not pure relaxation, but focused relaxation, a kind of relaxed readiness that is highly targeted to achieve a desired end state -- unself-conscious, integrated, focused responding to the demands of the exam. .. her mind clicking along, her memory in top form, and a kind of joy in recalling, synthesizing and dispensing all the information she’s been studying. (. ..and, needless to say, this is no substitute for studying - just a way to make the best use of it.) This is not the same as plain relaxation. This is targeted imagery.

This is no different from how a trained athlete uses imagery - learning a state of relaxed, focused readiness, where you merge with the activity and use every part of you in an integrated, seamless, joyful way. You imagine the feel of your body, in smooth and easy motion, as it performs at maximum effectiveness.

Even in the landmark Henry Bennett surgery study, the outcomes of relaxation alone, without targeted imagery mediating that relaxation, had their downside. People bled more, for instance, because their blood vessels were relaxing, along with everything else. But the guided imagery, which had relaxation plus imagining the desired end state (including little bleeding) achieved the goals and got the job done. Bennett in fact concluded that relaxation alone was not appropriate for surgery; far preferable was relaxation with targeted imagery, just as it is for any exertional sport or performance demand.

So I hope this answers your question. The answer is, you’re both right.