School & District Management

Anxious Students? Amping Up May Be Better Than Calming Down, Study Finds

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 24, 2013 3 min read
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It’s easy for performance anxiety to trip up students, and a new set of studies suggests it may be better for teachers to get their stressed kids excited rather than trying to calm them down.

In a series of experiments highlighted in the latest issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Allison Wood Brooks, a psychologist at Harvard Business School who studies performance under stress, found that getting anxious people amped up about a forthcoming test or task improved their performance more than trying to soothe their fears.

That might seem counterintuitive to many students; Brooks found in a separate study of 300 adults, nearly 85 percent reported they try to calm down in response to performance anxiety.

“People have a very strong intuition that trying to calm down is the best way to cope with their anxiety, but that can be very difficult and ineffective,” Brooks said in a statement on the study. “When people feel anxious and try to calm down, they are thinking about all the things that could go badly. When they are excited, they are thinking about how things could go well.”

For example, in one experiment Brooks challenged 80 men and 108 women to a “very difficult IQ test” using math problems—a subject previous studies show often causes children and adults alike to break into a cold sweat. She prefaced the test with either no comment or an instruction to either “try to get excited” or “try to calm down.”

Those who were told to get excited not only outperformed the control group and “calm” group by 8 percent, but they also felt more confident about their math skills after the test than the other two groups. That may be even more important in the long term for girls or other groups who typically experience performance anxiety related to stereotypes.

While the math experiment called for participants to try to feel calmer or more excited, Brooks found that faking it can do just as well. In two tasks—singing a rock song in a karaoke game and giving a public speech advertising themselves as a work partner—participants were randomly assigned to say they were excited or calm, regardless of what their actual feelings were. In both experiments, Brooks found people who said they were excited performed better, from arguing more persuasively to singing more on-key, than those who said they were calm. In the karaoke experiment, singers assigned to say they were excited were more than 80 percent accurate in a video game of the song (Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” aptly enough), while those assigned to express nervousness were less than 53 percent accurate. Those who had not been told to say anything in advanced were about 69 percent accurate.

Because fear and excitement are similar types of arousal, Brooks thinks talking about being excited can fool the brain into translating fear as anticipation, the same way people waiting in line for a roller coaster or sitting down with a first date might feel pleasantly nervous. It’s easier to get kids and adults alike to mentally switch anxiety to excitement than to serenity, an emotion on the other end of the spectrum.

“In this way, excitement may prime an ‘opportunity’ mindset, whereas trying to calm down may perpetuate a ‘threat’ mindset,” Brooks concluded in the study. “In turn, threat versus opportunity mindsets can profoundly influence cognition and performance.”

This might help explain why other studies have found writing short positive essays can help students combat stereotype threat. Focusing on their own strengths and the strengths of others in their group might help students reframe their feelings as energy and excitement rather than dread.

I was particularly intrigued by Brooks’ suggestion that researchers and educators may be able to develop additional interventions by reframing other similar pairs of emotions, such as boredom and calmness. Prior studies have found students can interpret chronic stress as boredom, leading to spiraling academic disengagement and difficulty. If educators could help students reframe those feelings as calmness, maybe they could halt that downward spiral. I’d be interested in what future research finds on this.

Want more research news? Follow @SarahDSparks on Twitter for the latest studies, and join the conversation.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.