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Friday, April 19, 2024

Before taking our chemistry tests, a friend of mine used to say we weren’t actually anxious, but we were instead excited, like electrons. I would just look at her and roll my eyes. No one could convince me that my increased state of agitated energy was anything but an expression of dread and fear.

Of course, my friend has always been the more optimistic one, whereas when I see a phone call from my dad, my brain immediately jumps to someone has died, or I’ve messed something up.

Studies have shown that optimistic or happy people are healthier, more successful and live longer. And according to a December study published online in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, positive people have another thing going for them: They perform better on activities that trigger anxiety.

The research, conducted by Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, finds that telling yourself you are excited before a stressful event can be more effective than telling yourself to calm down.

The experiment evaluated participants in different exercises like public speaking, karaoke singing and math-test taking. The individuals who were instructed to try to get excited performed better than those who were told to try to remain calm.

Dr. Linda Lewis, licensed mental health counselor at UF’s Counseling & Wellness Center, said for some people, the word “anxious” means unease or worry, whereas for others, it means eagerness or anticipation. The body reacts the same way whether one is anxious for positive or negative reasons, she said.

“The way we talk about our feelings has a strong influence on how we actually feel,” according to the study.

So, saying “I’m excited” out loud before a dreaded activity can actually increase feelings of excitement.

Lewis said this is why counselors ask students to say positive affirmations or make goals out loud.

Though Lewis is not familiar with the full study, she said it may change how she works with students on anxiety before their exams.

Sara Martin, health promotion specialist at GatorWell Health Promotion Services, said three strategies she teaches for stress management are preparation, confidence and relaxation, and those first two steps deal mostly with study skills and time management.

Therefore, you can tell yourself whatever you want, but if you do not have a solid foundation, you are still probably not going to do well on your exams. But if you are fully prepared and still anxious, you can try tricking your brain into thinking you are excited for that test and train it to perform better.

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What’s the worst you can do? Or, let me rephrase that. What’s the best that can happen?

A version of this story ran on page 7 on 1/9/2014 under the headline "Excitement may lead to better performance"

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