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Rethinking Test Anxiety: From Anxious to Excited

Take this quick test:

You’re about to give the biggest speech of your life. One thousand pairs of eyes are glaring at you—you’re nervous. In fact, your heart is racing, your palms are clammy, your breath is shallow, and your tummy is in knots. To perform at your potential, you should:

(a) Try to calm down
(b) Try to feel excited

If you answered A, congrats! According to Harvard Business School professor, Alison Wood Brooks, you chose the same answer as 91% of other adults.

Unfortunately, if you want to deliver a good speech, the better strategy is to try to feel excited. Let me explain.

Brooks studies pre-performance anxiety in a variety of domains including singing karaoke, speaking in public, and math performance. Her research shows time and time again that when you feel anxious prior to a performance (including test taking), instead of adopting the conventional wisdom of “calming down,” it’s better to embrace stress.

What does “embracing stress” mean exactly?

In one study, Brooks divided participants into groups. One group was instructed to say “I am calm” aloud. The other group was directed to embrace their stress by saying, “I am excited.”  

Neither statement made the anxiety disappear, but the “I am excited” participants were more confident in their ability to give a good speech. What’s more is that this group was rated more persuasive, confident, and competent by those watching the speeches than the group who tried to calm down.

In a different experiment, University of Rochester professor of psychology, Jeremy Jameison, worked with students taking the GRE (an entrance exam for graduate school). Prior to taking a practice test, he took the students saliva samples letting them know he was measuring how stress affects performance.

The professor split the group in two and gave half the test takers a “stress is good for you” pep talk.  This group was told recent research shows that stress can improve performance on a test. He then suggested that if you feel anxious, just remind yourself your stress is helping you. The other group received no instruction.

Students who received the stress is good for you pep talk scored higher on the practice exam. And one to three months later without any other interventions, they scored higher on the real exam.

Here’s the real kicker… Jameison was afraid that his pep talk may have calmed the first group down. However, when he tested their saliva, it turned out the pep talk group actually had higher levels of stress hormones!

Here’s what we can take away: The way we think about stress, they way we perceive it is a mindset. And this mindset can affect the way stress reacts in our body.

Some types of stress responses are resources to be corralled and used to our advantage.

Next time your student or your child is facing anxiety due to a speech or upcoming test, in addition to all of the conventional wisdom (prepare, organize, practice), let them know that their anxiety can be their ally.

If your child feels like this before a test…

Transforming Test Anxiety

… have them say some of these statements out loud:

“I feel my body preparing me for this challenge.”

“I have butterflies in my stomach, my body is determined to do well on this test.”

“A little stress can actually help me do good on this test.”

“My palms are sweating–I’m starting to get energy to do well on this test.”

“I’m getting excited to rise to the challenge.”

Have an anxious child or student? Take our upcoming free, live Masterclass: 9 Things Every Parent with an Anxious Child Should Try – Grab a spot now!


More References:

McGonigal, Kelly. The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. Print.
Rethinking Test Anxiety: From Anxious to Excited

Renee Jain, MAPP

Renee Jain is an award-winning tech entrepreneur turned speaker and certified life coach. She also holds a masters in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Renee specializes in cultivating skills of resilience in both adults and children. Her passion is taking research-based concepts and transforming them into fun and digestible learning modules. For children, she has created one-of-a-kind anxiety relief programs at GoZen! delivered via engaging animated shorts.

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APA Reference
Jain, R. (2017). Rethinking Test Anxiety: From Anxious to Excited. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 6, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 Nov 2017
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