Finally, I have a moment to discuss the second half of the long NYT article on stress. The first half focuses on genes that make you either a worrier or a warrior (or a bit of both). The second part of the article shifts its focus to how people can transform short-term stress into a positive factor, regardless of their genes.
One thing a performing arts background gives me is an intense appreciation of the link between the physical and the emotional. I don’t think it surprises anyone to say that emotions can cause physical reactions: body posture changes, heart rate changes, facial expressions, muscle tension, etc. But the causal arrow can work in the other direction too! If you consciously engage in a physical movement, the physical change can affect your emotional experience as well.
The second half of the article discusses how stress can either trigger fight or flight readiness. If you are prepared for a fight, your response to short-term stress can be channeled into extraordinarily effective responses. (Sadly, this is not so for long-term chronic stress.) Flight responses are often self-defeating in a test-taking situation. The good news is that you can coax your body and your mind into a fight stance and away from a flight stance, and you do it literally — by focusing on your body posture!
The scientists learn from how professionals (athletes, performers, etc.) manage stress differently than amateurs. Importantly, “professionals feel just as much anxiety as amateurs. The difference is in how they interpret their anxiety. The amateurs view it as detrimental, while the professionals tend to view stress as energizing. It gets them to focus.”
So, how can you turn all of this icky-feeling stress into something positive, without dedicating your life to becoming a professional test taker? The first is to know that the symptoms of stress you are feeling (heart racing, butterflies, mild nausea, etc.) are not evidence that something is wrong. Instead, it means that you have the capacity at the moment for extraordinary focus.
To help access that capacity, take conscious control of your body and spend even a few seconds in some bold “fight” stances. Before you leave for the test center, consider spending some time in the Warrior poses from yoga, particularly Warrior I, II, and Reverse Warrior. I find Warrior II to be my most powerful stance, getting all of that nervous energy, bundling it, and focusing it on smashing the fucking test.
While you are waiting around, pay attention to your posture, are your shoulders square and open or rounded and hunched? Even if it seems ridiculously vulnerable (and it might during these moments — don’t be surprised or alarmed if you have an unusually strong emotional reaction), any time you notice your shoulders curling in, gently pull them back. If you are standing, make sure your legs are about hip width apart and square with whatever direction your attention it is. If you are sitting, keep your legs apart a bit. (Ladies, do yourself a favor and don’t wear a short skirt to a high-stakes test.) Make sure your upper arms swing freely away from your body — let your armpits air out a bit! In general, take up as much space as you can, physically.
Your eyes can also contribute to your fight or flight mode. Are your eyes wide open? Is your gazing tending to dart around? This is classic fear eye patterns. Try to focus your gaze on a fixed point and lower your eyelids, almost into a squint (but without the tension). You might notice a shift in your breathing, too. All of this is good.
If you can coax yourself into this “challenge state,” you will have big physiological payoffs:
Hormones activate the brain’s reward centers and suppress the fear networks, so the person is excited to start in on the test. In this state, decision making becomes automatic. The blood vessels and lungs dilate. In a different study of stress, Jamieson found that the people told to feel positive about being anxious had their blood flow increase by an average of more than half a liter per minute, with more oxygen and energy coursing throughout the body and brain. Some had up to two liters per minute extra.
This is the “flow” that a lot of performance experts talk about. You want flow!
If you get flustered during your test — you spend too much time on a hard question or the guy sitting next to you is being an arrogant jerk (or vomiting or something distracting) — put your pencil down or take your hands off the keyboard. Check in with your shoulders, posture, legs and upper arms, take three deep slow breaths with the lids of your eyelids at half-mast, and then pick up again. Those few seconds of centering will pay for themselves in terms of time, getting you back into fighting mode.
Of course, all of this will be more reliable and less prone to freaky (but normal!) strong emotional responses if you’ve practiced them a lot. So do all of this during practice tests and other stressful situations.