Updated: 6 days ago
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I’m a sucker for themes, especially seasonal ones. So October has me thinking about Fear.
Nature reminds us that life includes darkening days, loss, impending winter. Halloween swoops in with fabricated opportunities for feelings of fear—from the preschooler I saw running screeching giggling away from the skeleton display at my local Target to the teens lining up for “Scream Town”-type places all over. And while psychologists debate about why moviegoers enjoy horror films, at least one theory is that they allow us to feel fear without facing a real threat, which many people then find pleasurable.
Fear plays a role for all students too. The trick (see what I did there) is how to manage Fear within your academic life so it treats you well (see what I did there too). Read on to find out how...
In my college teaching, I talk about this from the perspective of brain science. The feeling of Fear is caused when your amygdala reacts to a stimulus that you perceive as dangerous. Its job is to keep you safe–so thank goodness for it–but it’s highly reactive. That white piece of paper isn’t technically going to hurt you…but your amygdala sees the word "EXAM" on the top of it, paired with years of stressful exam-taking experiences, and bam: Big Fear Response. Test anxiety is common and debilitating.
In my 1:1 coaching, I use metaphors with students to help them keep academic Fear in its place–not in the driver's seat, but still riding along with us in the semester's journey. My favorite version of this metaphor comes from the writer Elizabeth Gilbert explaining how fear is a natural part of the creative process. Imagining ways to control Fear can be very helpful.
Here are a few tips for you and yours at we enter this fear-loving season:
Acknowledge fear by naming it: Is the fear about actually failing a class? Is it fear of college admissions/ the future? Is it fear of embarrassment during class discussions? Each of these elicits a different response to calm the amygdala. By being specific you can learn to “put it in the backseat” of your academic life, not driving you. As neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel says: You have to Name it to tame it.
Focus on goals that help move you toward something good, instead of away from something negative. Fear is highest when we are running away from the things we don’t want. This is called Reactive Motivation. Cramming for a test is a form of reactive motivation. It makes your amygdala freak out. Practicing for a test that’s in one week generates Proactive Motivation. Fear is in the backseat (maybe even the trunk!) when you do this.
Put on a “costume.” Halloween gives us a powerful practice for achieving goals: When you are pursuing hard things in the face of fear, you will need to “act as if.” Pretend to be someone who turns in all schoolwork on time by acting as if you are already that person. Do the things that type of student would do (eg, commit to homework times, track assignments closely, use resources when needed). Wear a sort of costume of Being who you aim to become.
I truly believe successful students know how to manage their fears, and that this skill can be taught and learned. Join me as we grow this autumn: instagram @tina_kruse_coaching and Facebook at TinaKruse-Coaching.
Thanks for your patience with my (candy-) corny exploration of Fear and its role in academic wellbeing! Feel free to share this message with students you know and love too.
wishing you fearfully well, Tina