From The Atlantic comes an interesting article about controlling nervousness. The gist: if we’re nervous, it’s less effective to try to calm down than it is to get excited:
“That’s because anxiety and excitement are both aroused emotions. In both, the heart beats faster, cortisol surges, and the body prepares for action… The only difference is that excitement is a positive emotion‚ focused on all the ways something could go well.”
The researchers asked folks to repeat “I am excited” before something nerve-wracking. Read the article for how this affected singing a Journey song! 😝
Will this really work? I don’t know.
But understanding our body’s feelings is important, especially for gifted students whose powerful minds often overthink problems. This perseveration escalates nervousness (check out Why Smart Kids Worry or From Worrier Into A Warrior, both written by pals of mine).
If we teach what nervousness is, it may help kids use their brains to understand (and control) their bodies.
How Our Body Reacts
So, when we’re nervous, what’s really happening?
- We know a threat is coming.
- Our body assumes the threat is a physical attack (even though it’s probably not).
- Our body pumps chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline into our blood.
- These chemicals get us ready for battle by:
- increasing heart rate
- narrowing vision
- decreasing hearing
- slowing digestion
- and even reducing bladder control!
All of these are traits of nervousness, but they make sense when we realize our body is redirecting our limited resources to prepare for battle.
- Peripheral vision and hearing aren’t important when the big threat is right in front of us. So our body eliminates these senses.
- Digestion doesn’t matter if we’re about to die, so our body redirects blood away from the stomach (this causes the “butterflies in my stomach” feeling).
- Blood is redirected to our extremities, flushing our faces (aka blushing) and giving us shaky hands.
- And that weight in our bladder slows us down. So we lose it.
Now, in a real battle we’d use up these chemicals in our blood, increasing our speed and strength. But if students are nervous about a test, the chemicals just sit there! What should be a temporary boost to their physical abilities becomes a long term poison called stress. (And you know about stress’ nasty effects)
Unfortunately our body’s reaction to threats is wired into us. We can’t disable it. But we can understand it and use that understanding to sooothe our reactions.
The idea of self-talk may sound silly, but it works to engage our brains to bring our purely physical reactions under control.
I feel nervous, but it’s really just my heart beating faster, pushing adrenaline into my system, because there’s a risk coming. I can take advantage of that adrenaline or maybe I should run around to use it up.
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
Dune is beyond most kids, but personifying fear as temporary and ultimately weaker than us is powerful. Dan Peters uses this idea with “The Worry Monster” in his aforementioned book.
Sidenote: if needles didn’t make me faint, I’d totally get a “Fear is the mind-killer” tattoo (is that an example of irony?).
A Quick Chat
Teaching students to understand their body’s reaction to stress won’t eliminate the reaction, but it can help them to embrace it and move on. And this kind of talk is perfect for those five minutes before lunch, to start the day, or to wrap up before everyone go home.
Photo by JetPants