When it comes to anxiety, we've got everything backwards.

Just consider the last time you felt a wave of raw fear minutes before a big presentation or a difficult conversation. If you're like most people, your first instinct was to say to yourself, "Stop freaking out. Calm down."

And yet, according to Harvard Business School professor Allison Wood Brooks, this is exactly the wrong thing to do. Her research shows that shifting from anxiety, a negative state of high arousal, to calm, a positive state of low arousal, is both extremely difficult and counterproductive.

It's difficult because anxiety has a powerful momentum of arousal. It shifts our heart rate, our breathing rate, and activates the release of hormones designed to keep us vigilant, alert, and awake.

It's also counterproductive for two reasons. First, to perform at our best, we need to be in this state of high arousal and activation. Just imagine what it would be like to deliver a keynote in front of 1,000 people feeling like you just walked out of a 90-minute massage. You would have exactly the wrong energy for commanding the stage.

Second, trying to shift from anxiety to calm generally backfires. The problem is that when we resist the state of anxiety, that can lead us to feel anxious about our anxiety, which makes us more anxious, which makes us even more anxious about our anxiety.  It's a phenomenon that bestselling author Mark Manson describes as "the feedback loop from hell."  And I can tell you from personal experience, it's no fun at all.

The Magic of "Anxiety Reappraisal"

So what's the alternative? Stop trying to calm down. Instead, shift from anxiety to excitement.

This ends up being a much easier, more productive, move because both anxiety and excitement are what psychologists call "arousal emotions."  They are states of high activation.

The only real difference between these two states is our story about them. Anxiety involves a story of resistance.  We feel activated while imagining a future where everything goes wrong, where we make a complete fool out of ourselves and are laughed off the stage. Excitement, by contrast, involves an almost identical physiological state with a slightly different story -- a story that welcomes and looks forward to the future instead of dreading it.

That's why the shift from anxiety to excitement is so much easier to pull off than trying to calm down. We're no longer trying to change our basic physiology. We're just changing our story about it.

In Brooks' research, for instance, she found that "anxiety reappraisal" allowed subjects to not only perform better on singing and math tasks, it also changed their orientation to the stressful future event. They shifted from seeing these tasks as "threats" to seeing them as "opportunities." In short, they swapped the story of anxiety for the story of excitement.

The Ultra-Efficient Shift of "Paradoxical Intention"

How can you make this shift? One of the classic tools comes from an often overlooked passage in Victor Frankl's classic work Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl calls it the practice of "paradoxical intention."

It's simple. Wish for the opposite of what you want. Here's what it sounds like:

  • Fear of public speaking: I want my heart rate to get as high as possible before I walk on stage.
  • Fear of insomnia: I'm looking forward to having my mind race so fast tonight that I can't sleep.
  • Fear of flying: I hope I feel as much adrenaline as possible when I get on that plane.

I know. Sounds crazy. But this is the twisted, reverse, logic of anxiety.  By flipping our ordinary habit of resistance on its head, we create a new story. We're no longer trying to get rid of anxiety, we're now seeing it from a new perspective.

The research shows that this switch doesn't get rid of the physiological state of activation that comes with anxiety.  It doesn't necessarily calm us down. It does, however, change our experience of this state of high activation, from the torture of anxiety to the anticipation of excitement.

Try it out this week. What are you dreading?  What makes you feel anxious? What happens right now when you begin to look forward to it?

Published on: Sep 11, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.