If you have a big presentation, high stakes sales meeting, or important speech before a large audience coming up, you're probably reading this article hoping to discover how to keep calm and perform at your best. But according to Harvard researcher Alison Wood Brooks, if you really want to nail your next big challenge, the surprising secret is give up on keeping calm.

We all know that an overdose of anxiety can cause your heart to race, your palms to sweat, and, in the dreaded worst-case scenario, your brain to apparently shut down. Therefore, common sense tells us to fight to keep these physical signs of anxiety under control, but Brooks' research demonstrates that this traditional approach to dealing with nerves is a losing battle.

In order to keep calm and carry on, "you must fight against your physiology--your automatic physical responses to the situation--which is very difficult to do," Brooks told Harvard Magazine.

You're not anxious, you're excited.

So what should you do instead? Try working with your body's response to anxiety rather than against it. Rather than control your racing heart, re-label it. Just tell yourself you're excited rather than anxious. The two emotional states -- anxiety and excitement -- are very similar physically, after all

This strategy sounds too simple to be effective, but Brooks tested it in a series of experiments. She asked volunteers to come into the lab and do a stressful task such as performing their best karaoke version of the Journey hit "Don't Stop Believing'" or give a speech. The participants were divided into three groups. One told themselves, 'I'm calm,' another 'I'm anxious,' and the last, 'I'm excited.' Their performance was then objectively scored.

Did something so seemingly insignificant as the word they chose for their emotional state impact the participants' performance? "People who said, 'I'm excited,' before they sang actually sang better on this objective performance measure," Brooks reports.

Brooke explained to Fast Company why this simple intervention works. When you feel anxious, you're on the lookout for threats, but "when you're excited, it primes an opportunity mind-set, so you think of all of the good things that can happen. You're more likely to make decisions and take actions that will make [good results] likely to occur." An accomplished singer herself, Brooks swears this approach works to cure her stage fright.

Could it be just what you need to ace your next high-stakes challenge as well?

Published on: Jan 25, 2016
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