Your heart bounces against your rib cage. A stream of sweat flows down your spine. Your throat is a desert and your tongue is paralyzed, useless.
Are you feeling like this because you're about to go on a date with the love of your life?
Or is it because you're about to go onstage to give a keynote address to 500 strangers?
Either way, whether because of excitement oranxiety, your body behaves in the same manner.
And, either way, conventional wisdom says you need to calm down. Take deep breaths. Picture a calm beach. Tense your muscles, then relax them.
But you and I both know that doesn't always work. Suppressing your feelings, whether positive or negative, can backfire. Reframing your anxiety into calmness can be too big of a leap.
That's what led Alison Wood Brooks, Harvard Business School assistant professor, to test a different way of reframing anxiety in her study, "Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement."
She had 659 subjects go through anxiety-inducing experiences: sing in front of strangers, deliver a persuasive public speech, and complete a difficult math test under time pressure.
Some participants were guided to reframe their anxiety as calmness. Others as excitement. Still others were left to their own devices.
She found, first of all, that once anxiety sets in, it was hard to calm down physically. In all cases, most of the participants continued to have elevated heart rates. All participants also reported that they continued to feel anxious, no matter how they reframed it.
"Once activated, an aroused state was difficult to control," Brooks said. "Even with explicit instructions to try to calm down, heart rate remained high across all conditions leading up to and throughout the math task."
But compared to those who reframed their anxiety as calmness or did not reframe their anxiety at all, participants who reframed their anxiety as excitement performed much better.
The Nintendo Wii karaoke program gave them higher performance scores based on volume, pitch, and note duration. Strangers rated them as more persuasive, competent, and confident speakers. They gave longer speeches. And they significantly scored higher in the math test!
Why Excitement Is Better
This study tells us there's an easier and more effective way for anyone to manage stressful situations. Instead of struggling to calm down, we can reframe anxiety as excitement.
Doing so is simpler than you might think.
In the study, participants reframed anxiety as excitement in one of two ways:
- Saying out loud (and trying to believe it), "I am excited"
- Reading on a screen, in large letters, "Try to get excited"
Those simple acts were enough for study participants to actually feel excited--and perform better than the others.
Brooks thinks reframing anxiety as excitement improves performance, because it primes us to have an opportunity mindset, whereas reframing it as calmness perpetuates a threat mindset.
A threat mindset imagines all the bad things that could happen as a result of a bad performance. On the other hand, an opportunity mindset focuses on the possible positive outcomes of the experience, and considers the experience in a positive light. For example, under an opportunity mindset, a difficult math task is seen as a challenge.
What This Means for You
The results of this study have many practical implications for you.
The next time you feel anxious, tell yourself that you're excited. And really believe it. Then look at the situation as an opportunity by thinking of the possible positive outcomes.
You can also use this technique with your team. Before a stressful performance-based task, encourage them to get excited. This will help build their confidence and they will most likely perform better.
This study reassures us that we are not slaves to our emotions. By reframing anxiety into excitement, we can harness that energy towards performing better and increasing our confidence. Try it next time you find yourself feeling pre-performance anxiety.