Confess you're feeling jittery before a speech, presentation or other big event and the response of the person standing next to you will probably be pretty predictable.
"Take a few deep breaths."
"You'll do great -- stop worrying!"
You've no doubt been hearing advice like that since you were a kid, but according to new research out of Harvard, this standard response to stress may be well meant, but it's also wrong. Instead of trying to calm ourselves down, the study by Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School suggests you fight fire with fire and aim to get excited instead.
The study asked participants to perform anxiety-producing activities like give a persuasive speech for experts to score or sing karaoke. Some were told to tell themselves 'I am calm' before stepping on stage, while others told themselves 'I'm excited.' It's a tiny change, but apparently how we think about and respond to our nervousness has big effects. Whether they were belting out pop tunes or arguing their point, those who psyched themselves up as excited did better than those who tried to calm themselves down.
Why is that? "When people feel anxious and try to calm down, they are thinking about all the things that could go badly. When they are excited, they are thinking about how things could go well," Wood Brooks explains. But, you might answer, I'm clearly not excited. I'm sweating and shaking and generally a wreck. Doesn't matter, replies Wood Brooks. Fake it until you make it.
"It really does pay to be positive, and people should say they are excited. Even if they don't believe it at first, saying 'I'm excited' out loud increases authentic feelings of excitement," she says.
These results may be counter-intuitive but they're not ground-breaking. Many experts have argued that how we think about our stress is a powerful determinant of performance, including University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, who is the author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.
"There are a variety of brain and body reactions that happen in high-pressure situations, and some of these can be warning signs that our performance is doomed -- especially if we interpret them in a negative way," she has explained. "For example, if you interpret a racing heart as 'oh s**t,' then your performance may be about to crack. But if you instead interpret the same racing heart as a call to action, you might perform at a high level."
The takeaway: try not to fight the physical symptoms of stress but instead reframe them as excitement or your body's preparation for the task ahead. Looking for other tips to counter your anxiety? There's plenty of good advice out there on how to tame your stress and perform.
How do you deal with anxiety?