Kate’s mouth is dry, her stomach twisting and her heart beating fast as her clammy hands open the exam paper. What is Kate experiencing at this moment? Some might guess anxiety or fear.
But actually she would describe her feelings while reading through the exam questions quite differently. Think again: which other emotion shares the bodily symptoms of pounding heart, sweaty palms, tense muscles, dry mouth and tight stomach?
The answer? Excitement. It may be hard to believe, but some people actually get excited by exams, including Kate, who is not a straight-A student, but someone inclined to see challenge where others see threat.
The golfer Tiger Woods said: “The day I’m not nervous is the day I quit… That’s the greatest thing about it, just to feel that rush.” With those words, he turned anxiety into excitement, just like Kate.
You can learn to do this, too. A study by the University of Pennsylvania put volunteers into various nerve-racking situations, including singing karaoke in front of strangers, public speaking and doing maths problems under time pressure. But before each activity – and this was the “treatment” – they spoke a single sentence out loud to themselves. That sentence was: “I feel anxious”, “I feel calm” or “I feel excited.” They wore heart-rate monitors during the experiment and, to make them aware of their bodily symptoms, how fast their hearts were beating was displayed prominently.
The results of this experiment chime with Tiger Woods’s experience. People who told themselves that they felt excited not only felt more self-confident but also performed better, objectively, at all the tasks – singing, public speaking, even arithmetic. The opposite was true for those who said: “I feel anxious.” Saying “I feel calm”, on the other hand, had no effect at all on performance or self-confidence.
How can three words have such different effects? It’s because calmness is the opposite state from anxiety: slow versus fast pulse, relaxed versus tense muscles, dry versus sweaty skin, and so on. It’s difficult to wrench yourself from one emotional opposite to the other.
But what you can do is take the lead from masters of martial arts, who harness the strength of their opponent and use that energy to throw them on to the ground. The signs of excitement are almost identical to those of anxiety. So it’s easier to harness anxiety in a mental aikido throw by saying the words “I feel excited” out loud. By doing this, it is sometimes possible to turn a potentially toxic emotion into an energy-giving positive one.
Too much anxiety can sabotage our feeling of being in control, which saps our confidence and makes us perform less well than we otherwise could. It also clouds the mind and weakens our memory – not very useful before and during exams.
There’s another trick you can practise while studying for exams, which Kate could have used as she opened her paper. Lightly clench your right hand for less than a minute, relax it, then clench it again for the essential period while you carefully read through the paper and think about the questions before starting to answer them. In most people, this simple action boosts a brain system linked to positive mood and confidence, so your exam marks can reflect your ability and not your anxiety.
The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper by Ian Robertson (Bloomsbury, £12.99, or £10.39 at bookshop.theguardian.com) is out on 16 June