Photo by  Michael Afonso  on  Unsplash

Sometimes, our emotions get the better of us. We have all faced the challenges of performing under pressure, whether we are speaking to an audience, working to a deadline, or undergoing a test to prove our talents. Students are all too familiar with the importance of tests that mark the end of an academic year. The results of those tests can be life-defining: they often decide whether a student will be able to pursue their cherished ambitions. Failure could force them down a less desirable career path.

The stress of high stakes

My own experiences as a university student certainly ran along these stressful lines. Knowing that I wanted to work in neuroscience at a major academic institution, I had no choice but to get decent grades. I could not have a bad day because there were no second chances. The tests at the end of the year were the only opportunity to prove myself.

The emotional challenges of that journey were as difficult as the academic challenges. However, we are generally not taught how to handle the emotional side. We know that we need to study and revise, so that we have the required knowledge to answer as many test questions as possible. But nobody tells us how to remain calm, composed, and controlled while being tested.

Although I was lucky to fall into the right mindset while undergoing the tests, I failed to control my anxieties and protect my mental health while studying for them. Over several days of multiple examination sessions, I averaged less than an hour of sleep a night, and felt the situational stress weighing on my shoulders every moment of the day.

My daily rhythm involved completing an exam, getting home as quickly as possible, rushing through pre-prepared meals, frantically studying until the small hours, going to bed, failing to sleep, then leaving to catch an early train back to university for the next exam. During the hours of the actual tests, the adrenaline in my body was sufficient to perform well, but during my commute home after the test, I would promptly crash back into a dizzying zombie-like state again.

Does it have to be this way? Why should we receive years of training, supervision, and preparation in acquiring knowledge for a test, but receive no tutoring whatsoever in how to mentally prepare for the high-stakes conditions?

It is likely that some productivity failures are attributable to emotional breakdowns rather than a lack of training, resources, or skills. In fact, perhaps some of the academic underperformance of students from low-income families could be explained by the additional stress and pressure to perform well. We need to learn these answers, and we need to know how to address any disadvantages too. One team of researchers targeted exactly these questions at the end of 2018.

The science of emotional regulation

Christopher Rozek at Stanford University, together with his colleagues from other universities around the US, decided to run an experiment with ninth-grade students in a Midwestern science classroom. They recruited over 1000 students, 285 of whom were classified as coming from a lower-income background because they had free lunch status. The researchers wanted to investigate whether methods of emotional regulation would help to improve test outcomes.

At the end of their first and second semesters, the students were randomly assigned to participate in one of four interventions immediately before their final tests:

  1. Control group: students read summary advice that told them to ignore their feelings of anxiety.

  2. Expressive emotional regulation: students considered their emotions and thinking patterns before the test and described them in writing.

  3. Reappraisal emotional regulation: students answered questions about a scientific text explaining that anxiety before a stressful event was helpful rather than harmful for performance.

  4. Combined emotional regulation: students completed both the expressive and reappraisal exercises for emotional regulation.

To understand whether emotions are a relevant variable in student performance, and whether regulation techniques boost performance, let’s look at the differences in test performance between the groups.

First, students who used the emotional regulation interventions before their tests achieved higher scores than students in the control group. So the interventions worked. However, the data confirmed that students from lower-income backgrounds performed significantly worse than students from higher-income backgrounds overall. Therefore, we should check whether the intervention effects were different for each socioeconomic group.

After analyzing the lower-income and higher-income students separately, the researchers found that the emotional regulation advantage was only true for the lower-income students. The interventions did not meaningfully help the higher-income students. Emotional regulation reduced the performance gap between rich and poor students by 29% compared to the gap found in the control group.

Total numbers of pass versus fail grades are perhaps more important than raw scores. Fortunately, through improving lower-income student performance, the interventions also significantly reduced the gap between income groups in the proportions of passing grades achieved. The inequality in passing rates dropped 58% compared to students in the control group.

But did the students feel any different following their interventions? Consistent with the performance numbers, higher-income students reported the same feelings about test anxiety whether they were in the intervention or the control groups. And overall, their views on anxiety were more optimistic than the perceptions of the lower-income students.

In contrast, the lower-income students developed a healthier view about the effects of anxiety following emotional regulation. Compared to lower-income students in the control group, the emotion regulators were more likely to agree with statements such as: “A test will go well if I am a little nervous before taking it”. The gap in anxiety optimism between rich and poor students fell 81% following the emotion interventions.

In all outcomes, the researchers found no difference between the various types of emotional regulation strategy. Whether expressing emotions, reappraising emotions, or both, the most disadvantaged students developed a more optimistic outlook about their anxieties, and they improved their academic performance compared to the control group.

So what does it all mean?

A strong academic record opens up many early career options for students. Whether trying to get into a top university, looking for entry programs in industry leadership, or trying to secure a place in a STEM field, grades matter.

We want to do everything we can to help disadvantaged students catch up with peers who secured a head start. Lower-income students have access to fewer resources and potentially fewer escape routes toward alternative successes if they fail academically. That means they are likely to experience particularly high levels of stress and anxiety when trying to prove themselves and achieve their full potential.

In our world of scarce resources, it is not easy to create a perfectly even playing field while living in a free society. But some helpful solutions are easily applied. The evidence above provides a great example of how simple emotional regulation strategies could help those with the fewest resources and often the heaviest pressures to perform well. When we have a healthier emotional mindset, we approach stressful challenges with greater confidence and accomplish greater success.

Of course, these insights will apply beyond education. As highlighted by the varying gains between the lower-income and higher-income students, our sensitivity to the advantages of emotional regulation may depend on our level of stress. We are likely to respond particularly well to emotional regulation when we face the challenges that make us most anxious and insecure.

How to beat fear in our own lives

The next time we feel the pressure mounting, there are simple steps we can take to calm our nerves. It all boils down to the two core principles of emotional regulation described above: expression and reappraisal.

For example, when we are feeling shaky before stepping up to speak to an audience, we can spend a few minutes writing out our emotional experiences before hitting the stage. This concrete expression of our emotions allows us to realistically process each feeling, rather than exaggerating or catastrophizing the experience in the recesses of our mind. By throwing our abstract thoughts down on paper, we see them as less of a threat, and we prevent them from spiraling out of control within our own head. If we clearly see what our problem is, we are better at finding a way to handle it.

Similarly, if an upcoming test or appraisal at work is making us nervous, we can remind ourselves of the essential value of our anxieties: without anxiety, we would not care enough to perform at our best. If we are not giving a task the emotional weight it deserves, we are more likely to feel distracted by irrelevant thoughts and mental intrusions that harm our performance. A little stress focuses our mind on exactly what needs to be done. Tunnel vision is often a good thing.

Those of us with the fewest resources and the greatest anxieties need all the help we can get. With some quick and painless efforts aimed at properly expressing our feelings and focusing on the advantages rather than the costs of stress, we can give ourselves an extra psychological push toward achieving everything we are capable of.