Change Your Mind About Anxiety

The New York Times published a fascinating article on test anxiety in February of this year. In that article, Bronson and Merryman tackle the question of stress, its effects on the brain, and its implications for students. The conclusion of the article was that short-term stress, such as the anxiety students feel before and while taking a test, can actually be helpful for test-taking. How is that possible?

The article included a Harvard experiment involving undergraduates preparing for the GRE. Half of the students were told that the study would focus on the effects of stress, nothing more. The other half of the students were told the following: “People who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” Rather than feel concerned when experiencing anxiety, the students were encouraged to “…simply remind yourself that your [anxiety] could be helping you do well.” The results were fascinating. The students who had been told that anxiety could actually help them scored about 50 points higher in the quantitative section of the test than those in the control group. Even more remarkable, the actual GRE results showed an even higher performance in the experimental group, about 65 points higher than in the control group.

The takeaway is that our performance in stressful situations can be improved if we change our view on anxiety.

It’s important to note that, in this study, both groups felt just as stressed; the encouraging statement did nothing to remove the symptoms of anxiety from the experimental group. A saliva test showed that the experimental group’s stress levels were actually higher than that of the control group; nevertheless, it far outperformed the control group. Why?

Studies comparing professional and amateur athletes show that both groups experience the same levels of anxiety, but their responses vary remarkably. “The amateurs view it as detrimental, while the professionals tend to view stress as energizing. It helps them to focus,” say Bronson and Merryman. The key is perspective, and it applies to test-taking. To benefit from short-term stress, we need to view anxiety differently.

If we adjust our perspective of stress, it can have a remarkable change in test performance. Rather than saying, “I’m stressed, and that means I’m not doing well,” we should instead be saying, “I’m stressed, and that means I’m ready, I’m excited, and I’m focused!” The more experience you can get working with that perspective (stress = ready, excited, and focused), the more you can use stress to help, rather than hurt, your test-taking.

So the next time you feel those butterflies in your stomach before starting your test, tell yourself, “I’m nervous, but that’s a good thing. I’ve been preparing for this, I’m ready, and I’m excited to get to work!” You may still feel nervous, but you are now using that anxiety to help you do better on the test!


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