Success and Stress: Performance Anxiety
Success and Stress: Performance Anxiety
September 9, 2016
With the completion of our third ‘Back to School Night’ today, we have completed our introductions, both formal and informal, to the key participants in the 2016-17 school year. Parents and teachers focused largely on scholastic and behavioral expectations for the year, with the intention of optimizing academic outcomes for our students. In such goal-setting, we inevitably focus on ‘what’, ‘when’, and ‘why’, but tend to spend less time on ‘how’ we are going to go about our work the year. Sure, we have our Eight Virtues + One to guide us in many aspects of the ‘how’, but is this enough? What are the things that are likely to impede or prevent us from reaching our learning goals this year?
The Affective Domain, one of three learning domains in Bloom’s Taxonomy (the others being Cognitive [knowledge] and Psychomotor [skills]), focuses on our attitudes, emotions, behaviors, and values, and particularly the ways in which we internalize, prioritize, and operationalize our values. Being aware of the affective domain helps us understand what makes us ‘tick’ and how we feel about ‘ticking’. An essential part of preparing for another year of learning is to take inventory in this domain. Are we ready emotionally and attitudinally for another year of learning? How will our enacted values – what we do, not what we say – contribute to, or detract from, our learning this year?
I am sure that in the past year two commonly experienced emotions had a negative impact on learning across all ISF families: anxiety and anger. This past week, at a gathering of Middle and Senior School students and faculty in the H.J. Zhang Black Box Theater, we talked about anger and anxiety and how they affect us. All of the students present acknowledged the experience of stress on a weekly, if not daily, basis. During the panel discussion, student and parent representatives acknowledged their fears and frustrations that arose in the face of expectations surrounding study and life that many agreed felt overwhelming at times. Our students, in the face of ever-present feelings of stress, shared some of their own ‘home-grown’ coping strategies, which ranged from task prioritization to avoiding tasks that caused the most stress. One parent admitted to feelings of self-recrimination and guilt when frustration boiled over into anger in the home.
The discussion was a little unsettling. All of the above arises from pressure, but pressure from where and from whom? Why are we so anxious? What fires our anger? Anxiety and anger, it would seem, are key challenges to be met and overcome this year.
For many, stress (pressure to perform) becomes anxiety (fear of failure to perform), which then translates into anger (resentment at not performing). We feel stressed because we are expected to perform and then become angry at others for asking too much and angry at ourselves for failing to meet expectations. If we are seeking to optimize learning, or life in general, where should we focus our attention: pressure, stress, or anger?
In this present age, and in our part of the world, life expectancy, material living standards, indeed our quality of life exceed the benchmarks achieved at any previous point in human history. The evidence would suggest that we have more reason to be content, settled, and appreciative of life than at any other time in the past. Yet, we strive, contend, and contest as a matter of instinct. Pressure is known as a mechanism of evolutionary development. In the absence of external sources of pressure, we generate our own. We want to ‘get ahead’. Studies have in fact shown that striving and longevity are linked: we are actually at our happiest when we are slightly too busy. Pressure gives direction and motivation. Thus, if pressure is not the problem, how we feel about performance and failure surely is, which brings us back to the affective domain and our values. If we are seeking to scale heights, attitude may be more important than altitude.
As we take stock at the beginning of another year of learning, we should be intelligent in setting our expectations and strive to distinguish between trying and feeling anxious about trying; we should be extremely vigilant against feeling angry about trying, but not succeeding.
Dr. Malcolm Pritchard
Head of School