Thursday, 26 June 2014

Anxiety - why smart people crumple under pressure

Big toe - shoe - rub.

The other day I wrote a post about some of reasons smart people perform poorly.  We looked at the 'stereo-type effect' and in particular 'self threat' and 'group threat' and how smart people perform worse in maths tests when they know their scores will be made public and represent a group they associate with.  

The final point of the post was that the 'meaning' you place on your performance will determine part of your result, positive or negative. 

However, the way these things negatively impact you is through one mechanism -Anxiety.  Anxiety is your enemy.   

So what is anxiety, how does it impair performance and how do you stop it?

What is it?

Hard to define but essentially it is a physiological response to an anticipation of harm.  There are two things happening.  First, you sense potential harm.  This may be harm to your body, or harm to your reputation, self-identity or self-image.  Then the second part is that your body responds physically to prepare you for action.

How does it mess you up?

Your brains ability to think can be divided up into working memory and long term memory.  The working memory is used to accesses information from the long term memory, hold the information, move it around, and think about it.  Working memory has several parts including a specialized part for imaging and another for sound buffering and an episodic buffer.  The working memory is limited.  It can only do so much before it is running at full capacity (say the alphabet backwards while adding random numbers).  Anxiety erodes your working memory.  The more anxious you get, the more erosion occurs - Ultimately it reduces you to a state of pure reaction and zero planned strategic action.  You lose the ability to access information and use it to make decisions.

If you need to run away from a mugger - it is perfect - just let that body react.  If you need to win a game of cards - you are doomed.

What else?

 There are two types of anxiety.  Both reduce your mental resources dramatically.  It happens via two separate yet interrelated domains.  One through your affective domain (feelings) and through the cognitive domain (thinking).  Within the affective domain (usually associated with math anxiety) a person has an affective reaction to stimulus (emotional).  That is they 'feel' unpleasant feelings and subsequently incur an erosion of working memory (sometimes likened to a panic attack, but often mild).

Math anxiety erodes working memory which makes thinking difficult which leads to failure which leads to an increased focus on the unpleasant feelings and hey presto - they are a quivering mess. This is common for people who fear looking less smart than their managed self-image (losing status).  Ironic because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The other aspect of anxiety is cognitive and is associated with test anxiety.  This causes people to think about the consequences of their failure.  They begin to focus on this, they engage in self-ruminating thoughts and subsequently pull precious resources from the task to thoughts of the consequences.  This is common in smart people doing high stakes testing.

The double whammy of feeling anxiety and thinking about what will happen if you fail - destroys people.

Lets mess with Larry

So let reduce Larry (a trainee teacher) to a quivering mess.  Here is how will we do it.

Get a classroom full of trainee teachers.  Tell them that they must be good at maths to teach children.  Lay it on think how poor teachers produce children who are bad at maths etc.  Don't let the teachers speak to each other.  Larry is not so good at maths so the last thing he wants is his colleagues to know this.  Larry is desperate to not be labeled bad at maths.  He is now thinking about his performance and wondering if he really is good or bad at maths (we have turned his attention onto himself).

Next the lecturer writes a maths problem on the board.  It is hard and Larry is not sure of the answer.  Lecturer says,"We'll start with an easy one.  This is a maths question that most 12 year olds will be able to work through.  I want one of you to come up the front and solve it".

There are the two things happening to Larry.  First his body temperature has risen, as has his heart rate, chemicals are being released in his brain that limit his working memory as they divert resources to reactive processes.  Second thing, Larry is thinking about what will happen if it is him that gets picked.  What will happen if they all find out he is no good at maths.  What will it feel like when he can't solve the problem with all those people watching him?  What new career will he get now he can't be a teacher?  How stupid and pathetic is he going to look?

The lecturer looks over the class and ... points to Larry.  "Larry, come and do this one, show us how you would solve this on the board".      
Someone else in the class says "Lucky you got the first easy one Larry, the next person will get the hard one".

Larry realises that he is about to be exposed.

Poor old Larry has two problems.  First his brain is preparing him for physical danger.  He has lost the ability to access information and use it to solve anything.  Second, what is left of his thinking ability is consumed with thoughts about what is going to happen.  If you haven't noticed, Larry has not even really thought about the problem on the board.  It could be 55 + 55 for all he knows.  But it doesn't matter because Larry gets to the front of the board and can't even think anything except how to get out of here and save some face.

 Later that night Larry sits in his room and looks at the same maths problem and solves it easily.

We turned Larry's brain around so that instead of focusing on the maths problem he focused on himself.

The truth is we can do this to anyone we want - no matter how confident they are.  We just need to find the right situation and stimuli.  Worse yet, the more it happens to you, the more it becomes an model , a pattern and an expectation, and remember anxiety begins with an expectation of harm.  If it happens twice, it'll happen three times.

The anxiety response is entirely predictable and therefore NO educator should be putting anyone in this position.

Next post - Beating anxiety

Most of the information on beating anxiety is rubbish written by people who have never felt it.  I'll give you the real secret in the next post.

Think about what happened to Larry and think about how you could interrupt the process.

Final note:  Bruce Banner turns into the Hulk when he senses danger.  Anxiety is a trigger - Yes in true scientific fashion Bruce's body interprets anxiety (and its precursors) as danger.  Who's brain would you rather have if you were playing chess, the Hulks, or Bruce Banners?

big toe - shoe - rub


  1. As a therapist I would advise Larry to begin breathing in slow deep breaths focusing more on the exhale than the inhale this triggering his para sympathetic response to help with the feeling of threat. Additionally I would invite him to attempt to be in the moment rather than projecting his thinking ahead to what might happen by focusing on objects around him and naming them. Additionally I would have him doing some form of self talk...not sure what...can't wait to read what is coming in the next blog to see what you suggest Larry could do!

  2. Larry probably will need a therapist by the time we are through with him.

  3. That's a good response from a therapists view point. I wonder how the coaches out there would work through this with Larry.

  4. Looking forward to the sequel to this.. How to beat educational performance anxiety in 5 easy steps...!

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