Q: I’m going into a situation that makes me severely anxious. Can I just “calm down” so I can do better? What can I do?
A: You probably won’t be able to “just calm down” by telling yourself to calm down. Instead, why not change how you think about your anxiety? One study shows that simply telling yourself that you’re excited, you can change your anxious energy into a positive force for good.
Many people experience pre-performance anxiety, and sometimes this anxiety interferes with performance.
One strategy for dealing with the anxiety is to try to get rid of it.
- Maybe you should just “try to calm down.”
- Maybe you should try to “fight” the anxiety.
- But do these strategies really work?
Here’s a hint – have you ever told an anxious person to just “calm down?” Did it work? Probably not. If we had a switch to just turn our emotions off, we’d use it all the time.
One researcher at Harvard Business School had a different idea. Maybe instead of trying to get rid of pre-performance anxiety, we could possibly think about it in a different way.
Maybe the key is to change our relationship with our anxiety.
Seems impossible? Or does it seem like a trick? Keep reading.
The results of this set of experiments was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General in 2014.
There are two general psychological principles that need to be understood before we can get to this study.
First, should we try to get rid of anxiety?
This might not be the best solution.
After all, we have the emotion of anxiety for a reason: it helps us.
Anxiety causes people to prepare more before an event takes place.
The only problems are too much anxiety or too little anxiety.
Second, what is reappraisal?
Previous research suggests the best way to deal with many emotions is reappraisal.
What is reappraisal?
It’s thinking of a certain emotion in a different way, instead of trying to suppress or eliminate it.
For instance, trying to think of anxiety as a sort of focused calmness.
Can anxiety be reappraised in other ways? What about as excitement?
Anxiety, in a way, “pumps us up.” It gets us motivated and energized.
So, anxiety is actually a lot like excitement.
What if we coped with anxiety by thinking of it as a type of excitement?
Rather than give a detailed account of all the experiments, some general principles will be outlined.
- First, the researcher just wanted to see what people believed about anxiety.
- She recruited 300 participants in an online survey to simply answer a few questions regarding a hypothetical scenario. Here’s the scenario:
- “Imagine that you work in a large organization of about five hundred employees. Tomorrow, you/your coworker is scheduled to give a 30-minute speech in front of the whole company. This makes you/your coworker feel extremely anxious.”
- Some of the survey takers answered for themselves, some answered for a coworker.
They answered whether the best advice is:
- Try to relax and calm down.
- Cancel the speech or find someone else to do it.
- Try to be excited instead of anxious.
A huge majority (84.9 to 90.9%) said the best advice is “try to relax and calm down.”
A smaller minority (from 8% to 21%) said try to be excited instead of anxious.
A very tiny minority (less than 2%) said to cancel.
Basically, most people think that just trying to calm down is the best advice.
However, this might not be the best way after all.
The researcher in this experiment tested this strategy in three different ways: karaoke singing, public speaking, and math performance.
All three of these situations are described as anxiety-provoking by many people.
The anxiety of each situation was increased by rewards for doing well, but the money was taken away for poor performance.
I’m not going to give the details of every single experiment, since they are all similar.
In all experiments, participants were asked to perform a certain task (singing, speaking, or mathematics).
Participants were told to read a passage or say certain things to themselves:
- “I am excited”
- “I am anxious”
- “I am calm”
- Or nothing.
In other words, participants were asked to tell themselves either that they were anxious, weren’t anxious (I’m calm), or thinking of their anxiety as excitement, OR do nothing.
Participants were judged on their performance in the singing and speaking tasks.
Singing and speaking were both public performance tasks.
Independent observers rated performance on these tasks.
The mathematics task was a test that was not done in public, so it was simply scored.
In singing, speaking, and math, those who told themselves they were “excited” rather than “calm” or “anxious” performed better.
They also experienced more confidence in their own abilities.
When people tried to stay calm, it didn’t work.
When heart rate and subjective sense of anxiety was measured, people were unable to just switch these things off. People can’t “just calm down” by telling themselves to do so.
The public speakers who reappraised their anxiety as excitement were also rated as more persuasive in their arguments.
How does this work?
The researchers suggested that excitement means opportunities to experience new things, grow, and succeed.
Anxiety is fear of something threatening. It means a bad experience is coming.
So, if you are about to experience something anxiety-provoking, here’s an extremely simple way to improve your performance. Tell yourself to try and get excited, OR that you’re already excited.
That’s it. It’s free, it’s simple, it doesn’t require alcohol or drugs, and it changes your outlook.
This works whether the task is public, or even in private, anxiety-provoking situations.
Brooks, A. W. (2014). Get excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(3), 1144-1158. Link: https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/xge-a0035325.pdf