Hi, Anxiety!

Ms Tennille Cummings, Dean of Academic Administration

You feel sick in the stomach, that awful gut-wrenching feeling; you search for the nearest bathroom; your hands are sweaty; your heart races; your muscles tighten; and your mind goes blank. Can you hide? Can you go home? These sensations and questions often emerge when we experience different or new situations. Whether it is riding The Tower of Terror, performing before an audience, playing in a grand final, starting at a new school or job, or even waiting to sit an examination, the feelings of fear and anxiety are the same.

There are people who enjoy these feelings and even thrive on them. They are able to turn their fears into excitement. We only have to ask people about how many scary movies they watch, or how many times they went on the roller coaster. They thrive on the rush of feeling fearful and excited at the same time. But why does this work for some activities and not for others? Can we turn some of our non-entertainment fears into excitement? Sports personalities and presenters turn anxiety into excitement to help increase their performance. Tiger Woods said: ‘The day I’m not nervous is the day I quit …That’s the greatest thing about it, just to feel that rush’ (Robertson, 2016). They use the energy from difficult situations and turn it into a positive and powerful experience.

One way to reframe our fear is to verify whether there is a real threat attached to these experiences. If we can see that there is not, then we are free to convince ourselves that it is exciting to do something new, different or challenging. The difference is not how the body reacts but how the mind interprets it. As Shakespeare’s initially-anxious Hamlet eventually realises, ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’. Fear and excitement feel the same physiologically and physically, but are different mentally and emotionally. Fear can be stressful and debilitating while excitement can be enjoyable and addictive. So the question is how we convince our mental and emotional state that some experiences are actually exciting rather than fearful.

The first step in doing so, from my Mathematics/ Science-teacher perspective, is to understand what these emotions really are, at a physiological and chemical level. Fear is simply a chain reaction in the brain that starts with a stressful stimulus and ends with a release of chemicals that, in turn, cause physical symptoms. Sensory data is sent to the thalamus, which forwards this information to the amygdala. The amygdala informs the hypothalamus that its host is either safe or should get out. The hippocampus questions whether its body has experienced this before and thinks about what other options might be causing this fear. The hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system which sends out impulses to the glands and muscles, and to the adrenal-cortical system which releases epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine into the blood stream. The physical end-results of this process are familiar to all of us: increased blood pressure and heart rate, dilated pupils, blood glucose level increases, muscle tension, and difficulty focusing on small tasks.

The problem — and the hope for positive change — lies in the fact that the physiological signs of excitement are almost identical to those of anxiety and fear, and the mind and body often cannot tell the difference between them.

What we all know, whether through positive or negative experience, is that there is a connection between how we feel and how we do. A recent Harvard study looked at the relationships between anxiety, fear, stress and performance. This study, by Dr Alison Wood Brooks, found that when people tell themselves to get excited they perform better than if they tell themselves to calm down. The reasoning makes perfect sense: ‘When people feel anxious and try to calm down, they are thinking of all the things that could go badly. When they’re excited, they’re thinking of all the things that could go well’ (Brooks, 2013). Anxiety and excitement are both felt in anticipation of an event and cause arousal in the brain but have very different effects on performance.

Some literature suggests that reappraising negative emotions, like fear and anxiety, is more effective than suppressing them, as suppression merely hides the emotion as it continues to affect us. Suppression of emotion can even lead to an increase in the emotion (Hoffmann, Heering, Sawyer, and Asnaani, 2009). The subjects in the study by Hoffmann et al. took part in a singing performance, a public speaking performance, and a mathematics exam. As they did these things, they were required to say either ‘I am anxious’, ‘I am excited’ or ‘Try to remain calm’. The ‘I am excited’ group did best. These subjects reported increased feelings of excitement and increased their performance. Despite what all those posters would have us believe, statements about staying calm had little impact on heart rates. Re-framing anxiety as excitement meant that the group felt better and did better.

It is normal to experience anxiety both in preparation for and during examinations. Indeed, a moderate level of anxiety helps us to perform optimally. The Yerkes-Dodson Law states that elevated arousal levels can improve performance up to a certain point. Experiencing little or no anxiety can leave us feeling unfocused and unmotivated, while high levels of anxiety can tip us over into disorganisation. The challenge, as I have been arguing, is to recognise when anxiety levels have increased past an optimal level and then learn to manage anxiety so it does not hijack performance. The key to success in future examinations might just be to start by saying ‘I am excited’.


Brooks, A.W. (2013, December). Get excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, (143)3, 1144–1158. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/xge-a0035325.pdf

Hoffmann, S.G., Heering, S., Sawyer, A. & Asnaani, A. (2009). How to handle anxiety: The effects of reappraisal, acceptance, and suppression strategies on anxious arousal. Advances in Experimental School Psychology, 30, 1–46.

Robertson, I. (2016, June 12). Feel the exam fear – but think of it as excitement [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jun/12/feel-the-exam-fear-but-think-of-it-as-excitement