Friendly Competition: Using Stress to Succeed

I have just read a New York Times article, “Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart,” that has profoundly changed the way I think about stress.  It is a must read.

The article summarizes recent research, including that of Rochester’s Jeremy Jamieson, investigating the effects of stress on academic performance.  Researchers argue that people can fall into two broad categories, “Warriors” and “Worriers.”  (About half of all people fall in just one, the rest of us have a mix.)  Warriors have brains that flush stress-inducing dopamine, so they revel in the challenges of threatening environments—like taking a test.

Worriers process dopamine more slowly, so they can get overwhelmed quickly by stress.  These people have superior executive functions—reasoning, problem-solving, planning—but they are vulnerable to the “engine” being flooded with too much “gas,” or stress.  So they don’t perform well, even though they’re “smart.”

Jamieson conducted research on Harvard undergraduates, giving half of them a card saying that “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better…(so) you shouldn’t feel concerned… (just) remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”  This had an amazing positive effective, immediately boosting mock GRE scores by 50 points.  Just by being reassured that stress can be a positive.

Think about this for just a second.  Jamieson and his colleagues are telling us that stress is a natural, physiological reaction to a challenging situation.  Stress makes us more alert, and when it is embraced (and this is critical), it can make our brains fire on all cylinders.  Think: “How do I kill the bear that is threatening my cave?”  He is saying that “managing stress,” a modern mantra, should not be an effort to suppress or dismiss stress but to use it to attack, to compete, to succeed.

The Times article, which you should read carefully and repeatedly, goes on to look at ways that we can train students to embrace stress.  This is mostly done through what might be called “Friendly Competition,” where students learn to compete intellectually in a non-threatening but still challenging situation.  Like a chess match, a math contest, or a trivia game.

I can imagine how teachers could use games and gaming more regularly, perhaps in groups.  This could promote a fun, team-oriented approach to solving problems, but with the stakes of winning or losing.

Perhaps more importantly, research like this can make us all more aware of whether we are Worriers or Warriors—or a little of both.  And with that in mind, we can begin to see stress less as a burden and more of an invitation to take on a challenge.


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Filed under Academic Success, Study Skills

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