Saturday, November 27, 2021

Romanticizing Anxiety

I'm working my way through Judson Brewer's book Unwinding Anxiety, and at one point he addresses the ways in which we justify and even seek out anxiety.

The sciency basis is a paper from 1908 by Yerkes and Dodson that has become enshrined as the Yerkes-Dodson Curve or even the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Yerkes-Dodson posit a sort of bell curve for stress, where more stress and anxiety and pressure drive better performance, until they don't and instead start to make things worse. This seems like it makes sense. But does it? 

These are not human people

Bewer says no. In fact, he says that decades later when papers supporting the Yerkes-Dodson curve were actually subjected to review and replication (that replication thing continues to be an issue in social science papers--see also the marshmallow test) and found that only 4% of the papers held up. Instead, the data mostly shows a linear negative correlation between stress and performance. The more stressed you are, the worse you do. Period.

Talking to his book editor about this research, Brewer heard a striking observation from her:

People romanticize their anxiety and/or stress. They wear it like a badge of honor, without which they would be a lesser person, or worse, lose a sense of purpose. To many, stress equals success. As she put it, "If you are stressed, you are making a contribution. If you're not stressed, you're a loser."

We can count the many, many ways this plays out in our lives ("If I'm not stressed, I'm not doing as much as I could be doing"), and what is someone who's overly addicted to drama is not a person who's convinced that stress and anxiety are signs that life is going well? But part of what struck me about these observations is how it all plays out in a classroom. 

Because boy can I relate to the ways in which we think our job is to "push" students, to inflict stress and anxiety upon them the better to spur their growth. Pressure is needed to make diamonds, or some such sentiment. And so we'd set out to put students through a pressure cooker.

Well, some of them. The pressure cookers are usually just for the honors students, the high achievers, partly because "they can take it" and also because their high-achieving parents shared the romanticized notion of anxiety. We knew better than to try putting the lower-achieving students through the pressure cooker because we knew (or we found out the hard way) that they'd buckle or just quit. And that should have spurred insights. I wrote years ago that every teacher should be bad at something, because there is no stress like the stress of knowing that you're going to be required to do something that you can't do well. And your brain goes through all sorts of contortions to deal with that. 

I got smarter as I went. Some of it was simple procedural tricks, like teasing coming attractions well ahead of time ("There's a paper about this topic coming up in a week or so") so that things didn't come as a surprise or shock. Some of it involved changing tone and approach, from "This is going to really separate the wheat from the chaff" to "This may look scary, but you are capable people, I'm not going to give you more than you can handle, and I am going to get you through this successfully." 

Some of it I couldn't control. Some of my colleagues used me as the Boogie Man ("You just wait till you get in his class!") and my juniors loved to try to scare sophomores ("Oh, man, this will be the hardest class ever!"), but by halfway through the year, we would inevitably have the "This really isn't so bad" conversation. And high school students have learned from adults how to humblebrag about how much stress they're carrying. 

But teachers don't have to romanticize anxiety, don't have to buy into the notion that their job is to pressurize students, don't have to jump on the "We build grit by putting them through the pressure cooker" train. 

As we know from a hundred different pieces, when it comes to pressure and stress and anxiety, schools are cranked up to 11 right now. So this may be an excellent time to shed any remaining romantic notions about how anxiety is good for you and makes you better at whatever it is you do. 

I'm not arguing that schools would be better if we never asked students to do anything hard, ever, and we reduced their stress levels by requiring them to do nothing, ever (nor am I convinced that doing so would actually reduce stress, but that's another conversation). Pursuing the mission of education--to help students grow and learn and better understand themselves and figure out how to be fully human in the world--that comes with some stress and anxiety built in. But if your classroom approach is based on the notion that you need to crank up the stress and anxiety in order to make your students "better," maybe don't. If you're a policy person and your whole raft of policy ideas is built on the premise that schools are all about applying pressure and creating stress in order to promote learning, the research is not on your side.

I'm pretty sure an anxiety-free school is not possible (just as anxiety-free life is unlikely), but there is no need to deliberately pile on more. Instead, focus on building strength and providing support. I'm a firm believer that the solution to the problem of Hard Things In Life is not to try to avoid all hard things, but to develop strength and confidence in dealing with those things when they come. That's where classroom focus should be.


  1. At my 'advanced studies'--do IB or take 10 AP classes over the course of four years, most of them as juniors and seniors--I've always found that relaxing the pressure brings better results. My mantra for students: Let's focus on learning, let the grades take care of themselves, and worry about the test when we get there.

  2. Some thoughts:

    There are many types of stress, and academic stress does not play out the same for each student.

    The stress factor and the "success" equation is full of nuance. An English class, for example, has many objectives. Not all students achieve peak performance in every aspect. And success in life has no correlation with those various objectives.

    It's hard to know how much and what kind of stress a teacher should apply, and how to do it confidently.

    What motivates a student to take on the stress vs. giving up? Intrinsic love of the subject? A desire to please parents? A desire to achieve? A desire to excel? A fear of failure? A fear of the future? A fear of humiliation?

    Teachers may apply stress but they can't control why another person is willing to take it on.

    The other person, namely the student, is not a widget. And people have various kinds of stress in their lives, unrelated to school.

    Do some people find it a game? Do others try to game the system?

    It's a challenge to teach a subject kids hate. Trying to sell a subject to a kid who hates it is not fun. Teachers do that all day.

    A discussion about stress which focuses on the teacher's role in "facilitating" stress requires careful consideration of the very people being put under the stress.

    Lots of people know how to be fully human in the world without reading books from the ever evolving canon or mastering grammar. They are reasonable goals, but they may not be the catalysts for development. On the other hand, dealing with people (teachers) and other people does help shape character. The old reality vs theory construct.

    Teaching is hard and being a student is hard. Lots of stress to go around.