Pete Rogers is Director of Community Wellbeing and Leadership Formation. At the school he plays a critical role in ensuring our students are as well-equipped psychologically as they are academically. He shares with us simple ways students can reduce stress and anxiety in their lives.
Dulwich College Shanghai Pudong prides itself on the academic achievements of its students. Dulwich IB students test in the very top tier of international schools globally and are accepted into the finest universities around the world. Like most wonderful things, our high expectation/high achieving academic environment can put stress on students that is counterproductive. Research is clear, however, that simple interventions can have an outsized positive impact on students both in lowering their anxiety about taking test(s) while also enhancing their ability to perform both in the classroom and beyond.
One of the most exciting parts of my work at DCSPD is providing students with psychological strategies for enhancing performance that build on the amazing academic formation they already receive. Here are six simple strategies I’ve employed with our students for reducing stress and positively impacting performance and psychological wellbeing. These tips are drawn from my own insights 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.
1. 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.
Takeaway: Interpret what’s happening to your body as excitement, not anxiety.
2. Use Positive Comparisons
Take the upcoming stressful event/test/interview and compare it to something familiar, easy, and less important. For example, if you’re nervous before your IB exams, tell yourself “These are just like Mock Exams.”
Takeaway: Relating something unknown to something familiar reduces anxiety and increases the amount of energy that can be used to perform complex tasks.
3. Focus on what you can control
I do a lot of public speaking and when I’m getting ready for an important presentation, I give particular focus on being really confident and comfortable with the first three minutes of the presentation. That’s it. The first three minutes. 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 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 was often able to achieve peak performance.
Takeaway: Students reduce anxiety by focusing on what they can control (thoughtful preparation, taking practice exams, asking teachers for help, good nutrition, healthy sleep, mindfulness practice, reducing outside distractions, etc…).
4. Optimize your stress, don’t 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 (a very difficult test with little preparation time) then students will feel 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 either intense anxiety or frustrating boredom, but rather feel appropriate amounts of stress that keep them motivated and moving forward.
Says Astrid D, Dulwich Pudong Year 12: Head Prefect-Wellbeing, “I definitely used to consider pressure as a negative concept, and one that would only impact me in a variety of detrimental ways. Adjusting my mindset about stress has shown substantial differences in my management of stressful situations, both in and out of the classroom.”
Takeaway: Not all stress is bad stress.
One of the biggest issues facing students is what is called “psychological rumination” (thinking about something for a long period of time). Rumination is a critical skill when you’re trying to create something 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 their concerns. It also gives students important psychological insights into the potential sources of their stress, which allows them to reexamine the situation with more clarity, and less anxiety.
Takeaway: Put pen to paper and write it out
6. 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 “I am a student taking a difficult math test, I will not perform well” (negative projection), 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.” (positive projection).
Takeaway: Make sure you articulate the potential benefits
These simple techniques have benefits beyond the classroom. Learning to perform, when the pressure is high, builds confidence and that confidence will grow as students graduate and assume leadership positions within their chosen universities or professions.
Director of Community Wellbeing and Leadership Formation