Fess up when you’re absolutely petrified of sitting that exam

confronting fear whether it is of a spider or an exam takes the truthPetrified of that upcoming maths/Afrikaans or physiology exam ?

Standard advice would be to give yourself a little pep talk along the lines of ….

“Maths/Afrikaans/physiology is easy. This exam is not a problem….”

The trouble with this “positive affirmation” approach, is that your brain is going BS. As the words are coming out of your mouth, a couple of neurons deep in your brain are sweating bullets and mumbling something along the lines of…

What is she/he smoking ? This exam is going to be a living nightmare !”

This week’s Neurotechnology Tip suggests positive affirmations are not the most effective way to confront an out and out fear, of an exam (or anything else for that matter). You’re better off – fessing up and admitting you’re absolutely terrified.

Fessing up

Is definitely the best way to handle an exaggerated fear of spiders i.e. arachnophobia.

It is probably worth pointing out, if you don’t have any fear of spiders, you probably also have a problem, what you don’t want is to have an exaggerated fear. Same thing applies to an exam, if there is NO FEAR, this can often be a sign of trouble.

It is the EXAGGERATED fear that is the problem, because EXAGGERATED fear can lead to irrational behaviour. The kind that involves jumping on a chair and screetching hysterically at the sight of a tiny spider. Or oops – I went completely blank during the exam.

Taking on big hairy spiders

A team of psychology researchers, from UCLA, managed to convince 88 self-confessed arachnophobes, to participate in their spider touching study. No, I don’t know how much they were paid – officially they VOLUNTEERED.

The object for the participants of the study, was to walk up to a tarantula in a glass cage and …….. touch it. 

NOTE : Tarantulas are a particularly big mean hairy variety of spider – probably would take a healthy dose of courage to touch one, even if you are not a self-confessed arachnophobe.

Walking the talk

The self confessed arachnophobes were divided into four groups. Each group had a different “close encounter”, with a tarantula in an enclosed setting. Translated, this means the lid was on nice an tight, so no matter what, the spider could not possibly GET THEM.

  • Group 1 – were told to tell it like it is. The kind of talk emanating from the lips of these folks was….. “I’m anxious and frightened by the ugly, terrifying spider.”
  • Group 2 – were told to LIE. Well that is not what the researchers called it, they were told to use a positive affirmation, along the lines of…”That little spider can’t hurt me; I’m not afraid of it.”
  • Group 3 -  were told to talk about the weather or something, whilst they were in the presence of the caged beast.
  • Group 4 - were told to just sit in front of the beast – saying absolutely NOTHING, out loud at least. We have no idea what they were saying in their heads !

Fighting talk

A week later everyone was back to meet-and-greet the spider, but this time, the lid was off and they were expected to approach the big hairy monster, reach inside the “cage” and touch it.

The researchers stood in the background and documented how close they managed to get to the spider, before scuttling away in a panic. In addition to this, the team recorded how distressed each participant appeared , as well as how much sweat was dripping of their hands.

For the record, no one actually touched the spider.

But the people who had called it like it is…. got the closest and sweated the least. Their performance was significantly better than any of the other groups, indicating the rather counter-intuitive approach, was the best way to handle a fear of spiders.

Call it like it is

The official name for the practice of calling it like it is, is “affect labelling”.

So how does it work ?

It is probably causing a mini-overload in the area of the brain known as the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. Turns out, this little patch of brain is where we go to label how we feel, but it does a little more than label things, it also participates in our emotional responses.

If you’re busy labelling how scared you feel, you actually have less capacity to feel afraid.

So verbalize that exam fear

So, if you’re writing a subject which you feel especially anxious about.

Don’t try calm yourself down, by whispering it really is not that bad. Embrace the fear. Verbalize it.

The truth will set you free.

If you’re verbalizing, you’re less likely to actually feel it.

And keeping the angst level in check during an exam, increases the chances that you will actually be able to put two and two together and think a little.

For those of you in the midst of exam season – hope it is going well !

Feelings Into Words: Contributions of Language to Exposure Therapy. Psychological Science (2012) 23(10):1086-1091. K. Kircanski, M. D. Lieberman, M. G. Craske. 

To wire up your brain a little each week ………………..

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Further reading

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Did you learn something new or do you have a different perspective ? I’d love to hear from you so post me a comment below

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