Getting Excited Over Anxiety

This article was originally published in our Fall 2018 print issue.

A college student is about to take a final for their hardest class of the semester. They walk into the exam room, take a seat, and wait for the test to be passed out, nervously watching the minutes tick by as they fiddle with their number two pencil. The student is filled with anxiety.

Sound familiar? Whether it’s a final exam, a work presentation, a singing performance, or anything in between, pre-performance anxiety has plagued every one of us. Research has proven that some anxiety is good. The right amount of anxiety can motivate effort and increase focus. However, too much anxiety drains working memory, reduces a person’s ability to process information, lowers self-confidence and increases risk aversion. Yikes!

When anxiety goes from helpful to destructive, Dr. Alison Woods Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, found that the best way to curb pre-performance anxiety is not what most people would expect.

In her study, Brooks asked 300 people what advice they would give to someone with pre-performance anxiety. She found that 84.94% of participants recommended “Try to relax and calm down.” Slogans like “Keep calm and carry on” or “Calm your nerves” perpetuate the idea that the solution to pre-performance anxiety is to calm down.

As it turns out, this method doesn’t work very well. Contrary to popular thought, when your friend recommends you “try to calm down” right before that big exam, you may not want to take the advice. What’s wrong with this seemingly harmless strategy?

In Brooks’s study, she discusses the cognitive process required to go from a state of anxiety to a state of calmness. The process is called “reappraisal.” Dr. Iris Mauss, an associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and director of the Emotion and Emotion Regulation Lab on campus, describes reappraisal as “reframing an emotional event in order to modulate one’s experience of negative or positive emotion.” In other words, when a person changes the way they think about a situation in order to change their emotions toward it, they are reappraising their emotions.

When someone loses their job, Mauss explains, they might feel their self-esteem is being threatened. Reappraising the situation, however, “could be perceived as an opportunity to transition into a better position.” General consensus has emerged that reappraisal is the most effective strategy for reducing pre-performance anxiety.

Though the general strategy of reappraisal is the most effective, reappraising anxiety as calmness is not. Why not? While anxiety is a high energy emotion, calmness is a low energy emotion. Due to the fact that anxious and calm emotions “differ in high versus low arousal,” it takes a lot of cognitive and physiological effort to make the switch.

Reappraising anxiety as calmness, Brooks explains, “requires a physiological shift from high to low arousal as well as a cognitive shift from negative to positive valence.” In short, because anxiety and calmness are so different, your body has to work extra hard to make the switch from one to the other.

Reappraising anxiety as excitement works better. It turns out that anxiety and excitement are physiologically very similar. In fact, it can be hard to tell the difference. If you’ve ever been the victim of a surprise birthday party, you’ve experienced it first-hand. Both anxiety and excitement are high arousal emotions, characterized by an increased heart rate. While the physiological experience of these two emotions is similar, they have incredibly divergent effects on performance. As we have all experienced before, too much anxiety harms performance, but excitement enhances it.

People who are excited are more optimistic, focus on the potential positive outcomes of events, and believe they can achieve more positive outcomes. Brooks says, “Reappraising anxiety as excitement requires only a cognitive change in valence because anxiety and excitement are arousal congruent.”

After conducting multiple tests, the results speak for themselves. Brooks conducted studies where she asked people to do all sorts of anxiety-inducing activities: public speaking events, karaoke contests, and math performances. In each case, some participants were told to “try to calm down” while others were told to “tell yourself you’re excited.” Participants in the public speaking trial who were instructed to “get excited” were ranked as more persuasive, competent, confident, and persistent. All else being equal, those who reappraised their anxiety as excitement performed better overall in each respective activity.

Brooks’s findings demonstrate the profound control people have over their emotions and, thus, over their performance. When a person is feeling anxious pre-performance, repeating a simple phrase like “I’m excited!” or “This is going to be so exciting!” may seem silly. However, studies show that the more we consciously tell our brains something, the more we start to believe it, which actually changes our emotional reaction.

As humans, we might prepare for a performance as much as possible and we might take all the right steps. But when it’s performance time, there’s no telling what emotional reaction we will have. Despite our best efforts, it can be hard to control those anxious, negative thoughts from flooding into our brains. What if I fail? What if I’m not enough? What if people don’t like me?

While we can’t always control our initial reactions, studies like Brooks’s prove that reappraising those initial reactions can be wildly successful. So, next time you’re about to give that anxiety-inducing presentation, try tricking your brain into thinking you’re excited. The results might just surprise you.