A few nerves before a big test can help you focus. A bad case of the jitters, though, becomes counterproductive – it makes it harder to concentrate, and it’s just downright unpleasant.

Of course, some people are more prone to test anxiety than others. One of the differences psychology researchers have suggested between people high and low in anxiety is that the former may be more attentive to threats. That is, their attention is biased to emphasize things that are threatening rather than things that are positive or neutral.

The implication is that, in theory, people would be able to dial down their anxiety levels if they could retrain their brains to be less biased to pay attention to threatening events, objects and thoughts.

Recently, a group of researchers from China took a step toward putting this theory into practice. In a study published in BMC Psychiatry, the researchers explored a method for modifying the attention bias of people with high test anxiety.

So how is it possible to change someone’s attention bias toward threats and reorient it toward more positive and neutral things? Psychologists have developed an ingenious technique for accomplishing this.

In general terms, the technique works like this: someone is shown a series of words or images that are either positive, neutral or threatening. In this study, examples of threat images were pictures of natural disasters and threatening animals.

Throughout the task, the person doing the task is supposed to be on the lookout for a certain object that will appear from time to time – for example, the letter “q.” After each image, the object may or may not appear. If it does, the person is supposed to press a certain key to show that they’ve spotted an instance of the object.

At this point, you might be wondering how viewing this series of images and watching for the letter “q” is supposed to reorient people’s attention. The trick is this: if the task is “rigged” so that the letter “q” appears more often after positive or neutral images, this nudges people’s attention away from the threatening images. Ideally, this will work to counteract people’s attention bias to threat in general, at least temporarily.

When the researchers tried this approach on people with high test anxiety, they achieved some promising results. Over the course of five days, people who participated in this task tended to reorient their attention away from threats. Importantly, they also became less vulnerable to feelings of anxiety.

This was only true when the task was rigged so that the object people were supposed to identify appeared more often after positive or neutral images. When the object appeared equally as often after threatening images, the task predictably did not change people’s attention bias.

All this suggests that test anxiety may be driven partly by an attentional bias toward threats and that one way of reducing test anxiety could be to change this bias. Easier said than done, of course, but this study shows that well-designed treatments could subtly shift people’s focus from a preoccupation with the negative to an emphasis on the positive.

Image: Flickr/Alberto G.