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January 26, 2021

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Simple ways to reduce stress and anxiety

AT Dulwich College Shanghai Pudong, high expectation, high achieving academic environment can put stress on students that is counterproductive.

Research is clear, however, that simple interventions can have a very positive impact on students both in lowering their anxiety about taking tests while also enhancing their ability to perform both in the classroom and beyond.

Here are six simple strategies that I’ve employed with students to reduce stress that have positively impacted performance and psychological wellbeing.

These tips are drawn from my own insight as well as from the research of UPenn psychologist Adam Grant and University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, both of whom have expertise in the psychology of peak performance.

Firstly, interpret your anxiety as excitement.

Instead of telling yourself “I’m so nervous,” tell yourself “I’m excited for the upcoming challenge.”

Research is clear that when students were told to get excited when they felt nervous, they delivered speeches that were rated 17 percent more persuasive and 15 percent more confident than students who were told to calm down. In another experiment, when students were told to get excited before a big exam, they scored 22 percent higher than students who were instructed to stay calm.

Secondly, use positive comparison.

Take the upcoming stressful event, test, interview, etc, and compare it to something familiar, easy and less important.

For example, if you’re nervous before your IB exams, you can tell yourself, “These are just like mock exams.” Relating something unknown to something familiar reduces anxiety and increases the amount of energy that can be used to perform complex tasks, like tests.

Thirdly, focus on what you can control.

I do a lot of public speaking and when I’m getting ready for a particularly important presentation, I give particular focus on being really confident and comfortable with the first three minutes of the presentation.

When I do this, my anxiety is reduced and it also makes me feel confident and in control, both of which reduce anxiety and allow me to deliver the rest of the presentation with clarity and focus.

Another example of using this technique effectively comes from Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Greg Maddux, who judged his performances on how many pitches left his hand the way he intended.

In other words, he focused on what he could control (the ball leaving his hand) and very little on what he could not control (whether or not the batter hit the ball). As such, he often hit peak performance.

Students can reduce anxiety by focusing on what they can control (preparation, taking practice exams, asking teachers for help, good nutrition, sleep, mindfulness practice, reducing outside distractions, etc).

In addition, try to optimize your stress, not eliminate it.

Research is clear that people perform at high levels when they are under the right amount of stress.

Think about it, if there is too little stress (e.g. a very easy exam), then students will get bored with studying and not be motivated. If the stress is too great, like a very difficult test with little preparation time, then students will be feeling incredibly anxious and this will hinder their ability to prepare well.

The key to peak performance is finding the state of psychological “flow,” where the skill of the student meets the appropriate amount of challenge.

When students enter flow state, they study with more focus and for longer periods of time. They also don’t experience intense anxiety or frustrating boredom, but rather feel appropriate amounts of stress that keep them motivated and moving forward.

Moreover, write!

One of the biggest issues facing students is “psychological rumination,” which means thinking carefully about something for a long period of time.

Rumination is a critical skill when you’re trying to create or improve something, but it decreases performance if you’re constantly ruminating (or complaining to your friends) about how difficult your upcoming exam is going to be.

Writing reduces people’s tendency to ruminate because it provides them with an opportunity to express concerns.

The process also gives students a psychological insight into the potential sources of their stress, which allows them to reexamine the situation with more clarity and less anxiety.

Finally, focus on positive projections rather than negative projections.

Instead of thinking what could go wrong, think about what can, and has, gone right. For example, instead of thinking negatively “I am a student taking a difficult math test, I will not perform well,” you think or say to yourself “I am a student at a top international school, who has prepared for this challenge, I will do well.”

These simple techniques have benefits beyond the classroom.

Learning to perform, when the pressure is high, builds confidence which will grow as students graduate and assume leadership positions within their chosen universities or professions.


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