During my last article I described performance anxiety, the impact of performance anxiety on an individual, preventative skills to decrease the likelihood of experiencing performance anxiety, and how parents can support their child experiencing performance anxiety. In this article I will describe tools and strategies individuals can use to build emotional resiliency.
The result of stressful emotions like anxiety can inhibit a student’s ability to absorb, retain and recall information. Anxiety creates a kind of “noise” or “mental static” in the brain that blocks our ability to retrieve what’s stored in memory and also greatly impairs our ability to comprehend and reason. Research has shown that providing students with tools and strategies that build both emotional skills and healthy physical habits when preparing for a test can help them overcome test anxiety and the associated symptoms, while improving their ability to prepare for and perform on critical testing. Cognitive tools include, but are not limited to identifying thoughts that lead to anxiety, challenging anxious thinking, identifying thinking traps, practicing realistic thinking skills, and reducing physical tension. Following is a description of each tool.
Identify Thoughts That Lead to Anxiety. When you notice increased anxiety, that is the time to ask: What am I thinking right now? What is making me feel anxious? What am I worried will happen? What bad thing do I expect to happen? It is important to pay attention to our self-talk because our self-talk or thoughts impact our feelings. Self-Talk, or thoughts, are the things that we say to ourselves without speaking out loud. Often we are unaware of our thoughts, but because they have such a big impact on how we feel and behave, it is important to start paying attention to what we are saying to ourselves. For Example, imagine you have a test in math class. If you think you are going to fail, you will feel scared and anxious; however,if you think you can pass, you will feel calm. Hence, our thoughts, feelings, and performance/behavior are connected.
Challenge Anxious Thinking. Just because you think something doesn’t make it true! A thought is just a thought! For example, thinking that you will fail a test doesn’t mean you will actually fail. Often, our thoughts are just guesses and not actual facts. Individuals should challenge anxious thoughts because they can make one feel like something bad will definitely happen, even when it is highly unlikely.
Thinking Traps=Anxiety. Thinking traps are unfair or overly negative ways of seeing things. Thinking traps include:
Catastrophizing: The mind tells an individual the worst possible case scenario is bound to occur
Labeling: At times, this includes calling oneself names like stupid
Fortune Telling: Predicting the outcome of the test before even taking the test
Mind Reading: Claiming to know what everyone else will think of the individual
Should Statements: Statements that identify that an event “Should” happen
Overgeneralizing: Statements that make one grade dictate a semester grade
So how can an individual begin to Identify his/her thinking traps? The individual can ask himself/herself questions like:
-Am I falling into a thinking trap (for example, catastrophizing or mind-reading)?
-What is the evidence that this thought is true? What is the evidence that this thought is not true?
-What would I tell a friend if he or she had that thought?
-Am I confusing a “possibility” with a “probability”? It may be possible, but is it likely?
-Am I 100% sure that ________________ will happen?
-How many times has ________________ happened before?
-Is ________________ really so important that my future depends upon it?
-What is the worst that could happen?
-Is this a hassle or a horror?
-If it did happen, what can I do to cope or handle it?
Once an individual has identified his/her anxious self-talk and thinking traps, the next step is to replace these thoughts with realistic thinking. Realistic thinking means looking at yourself, others, and the world in a balanced and fair way by looking at all aspects of a situation before making conclusions. Some helpful realistic thinking tips include coping statements, positive self-statements, and alternative balance statements based on challenging negative thoughts.
Coping statements are statements that remind you how you can cope with or tolerate a situation. For example, “Even if I did poorly on this test, I know that I tried by best. I might feel disappointed, but I can tolerate feelings of disappointment.” Positive self-statements are regularly practiced saying kind and positive things to yourself, rather than being overly self-critical. For example, “I may feel nervous before test, but feeling nervous is normal. Just because I feel nervous does not mean I am not prepared for the test or that I am not intelligent. Feeling nervous is my body’s way of telling me that I care about my performance.” Alternative balanced statements are based on challenging negative thoughts look at the evidence and recognized that you’ve fallen into a thinking trap; individuals then come up with a more balanced thought based on facts, not feelings.
Another tool that helps individuals cope with performance anxiety is regular practice of reducing physical tension. Reducing physical tension can help an individual relax his/her body and boost energy levels. Examples include focal breathing, body check exercise identifying areas of tension, and aerobic exercise. Exercise is a wonderful way to reduce stress. Focal breathing includes diaphragm breathing, square breathing, and belly breathing. While some may just practice breathing, others might use meditation or yoga to practice focal breathing. Body check exercises not only involve identifying areas of tension, but purposefully tensing and relaxing those muscle groups in your body. Using any one of physical tools or a combination of these tools in conjunction with the cognitive strategies described can help an individual to better manage the stressors in their lives.
For some they are able to learn and practicing these tools indepently; for others, it may be time to seek the help from a mental health professional. When the signs and symptoms suggest that anxiety may have been present for a prolonged period (more than a few days) and appear to be getting worse rapidly or over time, it may suggest it is time to seek help.