Excited or anxious? How to trick your brain in an exam

Drawing conclusions: Kierkegaard, a philosopher, thought that anxiety is the price we pay for having too much free choice.

Which emotion did you feel before taking your SATs: excited, or anxious? Telling yourself you are excited could stop you feeling anxious and improve your performance. But can anxiety ever be helpful?

What’s happening

The clock ticks. Your mind goes blank. You feel sick and dizzy. Sound familiar? Everyone gets anxious from time to time and it is perfectly normal. But what if you could turn this fear into something helpful? Research now shows it is possible to harness feelings of anxiety and turn them to our advantage. How?

Find out more

A Harvard Business School study found that telling ourselves we are excited, not anxious, improves our performance.

Volunteers had to sing to a group of strangers. Some were told to say “I’m anxious” before performing, while others were told to say “I’m excited”.

The “excited” group sang better than the others. Scientists say this happened because it is easier to move from a state of anxiety to excitement than to jump from anxious to relaxed.

Scientists think performance is affected because anxiety restricts blood flow while excitement encourages it.

Many stories in the media say anxiety is on the increase, particularly among the young. But if anxiety could enhance our performance, should we all embrace a bit of anxiety in our lives?

Some say…

“Yes!” say some. Anxiety disorders can be debilitating, but a little normal anxiety should be welcomed. It is a normal part of being a free and creative person, and now we are discovering techniques to use it to our advantage. It will never be possible to remove anxiety from our lives, it is better to learn how to deal with it in a positive way.

Others think…

“Easier said than done!” say others. Anxiety is a complex emotion and can stop us from doing our best. These tests might work in lab conditions, but it can be difficult to apply them to anything else. Could you tell yourself you were ‘excited’ about a SATs exam? We should try to minimise stressful situations if we want to get the best out of life.

You Decide

  1. Can feeling anxious have benefits?


  1. Conduct your own scientific experiment. Choose a topic to discuss. Split into two groups. Each group must speak for two minutes on the same topic. Before each person speaks, the teacher will tell them to say either “I’m anxious” or “I’m excited”. The rest of the class will give scores out of ten. Did one group do better than the other?

Some People Say...

“Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears.”

What do you think?

Word Watch

A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome. A bit of anxiety before an important event is perfectly normal.
Stories in the media
Eight out of ten UK primary school leaders recently said that pupils were suffering from increased anxiety during their SAT exams.
To weaken. If you do not perform as well in an exam because you are too anxious, then anxiety has had a debilitating affect on your performance.
To reduce or make smaller.


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