Knowing the right way to handle stress in the classroom and on the sports field can make the difference between success and failure for the millions of students who are back in school this fall. The culprit? The stress hormone cortisol.
Psychologist Sian Beilock says, "We found that cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, can either be tied to a student's poor performance on a math test or contribute to success, depending on the frame of mind of the student going into the test."
Math anxiety is fear or apprehension when just thinking about taking a math test. Cortisol is a hormone produced by the adrenal gland and associated with stress-related changes in the body; it is often referred to as the "stress hormone." In the kids who are typically the most talented, rising cortisol either leads to a performance boost or a performance flop, depending on whether they are already anxious about math.
For students without a fear of math, the more their cortisol increased during the test, the better they performed--for these confident students, the body’s response to stress actually pushed them to greater heights. In contrast, for students with more anxiety about math, surging cortisol was led to poor performance.
"Under stress, we have a variety of bodily reactions; how we interpret these reactions predicts whether we will choke or thrive under pressure," Beilock says. "If a student interprets their physiological response as a sign they are about to fail, they will. And, when taking a math test, students anxious about math are likely to do this. But the same physiological response can also be linked to success if a student’s outlook is positive."
So what's a nervous student to do? They can change their outlooks by writing about their anxieties before a test and "off-loading" their fears, or simply thinking about a time in the past when they have succeeded. According to Beilock, "When you're worried about doing well in a game, or giving a memorized speech in front of others, the best thing to do is to distract yourself with a little tune before you start so you don’t become focused on all the details of what you've done so many times before. On the playing field, thinking too much can be a bad thing."
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