Think back to a time when you were nervous about something. Did someone tell you to calm down? Did it work? If you’re like me, it probably didn’t help much. When someone tells me to relax, I typically end up more anxious because I feel like I should be calm but I’m not. The harder I try to calm down, the harder I shake, the more my palms sweat, or the more I feel the butterflies in my stomach whirling around.
What if instead of telling you to calm down, someone told you to get excited? A series of studies published in 2013 investigated this very question. The researchers theorized that it might be easier to go from feeling anxious to excited, rather than anxious to tranquil, because anxiety and excitement are both emotions that automatically cause a high level of arousal. All you need to do is change the valence of your emotions from negative to positive, and you can then use adrenaline to your advantage, see opportunities instead of threats, and improve your performance.
The researchers tested their hypothesis in several contexts. First, 113 individuals participated in a karaoke trial. Researchers randomly assigned participants to three cohorts. They asked one group to say “I am excited,” another to say “I am anxious,” and the third to say nothing before singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” According to voice recognition software, individuals in the excited group sang significantly more accurately than those in the other two groups, and those in the anxious group performed significantly worse than those who said nothing. In addition, participants in the excited group felt better about their singing ability and reported significantly higher levels of self-efficacy than those in the other two groups. They also felt significantly more excited than those in the anxious group but no less anxious than those in the other two cohorts.
In the second study, researchers asked 140 people to present a brief speech about why they were good work partners. Researchers randomly assigned one group to state “I am excited” and the other to state “I am calm” before presenting. Participants presented for an audience of one and were told their speeches would also be recorded for later judging by a panel. The panel, which was blind to participants’ group affiliations, evaluated the speakers on persuasiveness, confidence, anxiety, excitement, competence, and persistence. Judges rated those in the excited group as significantly more persuasive, confident, competent, and persistent than those in the calm group; however, they did not perceive one group as significantly more excited or anxious than the other. Furthermore, speakers from the excited group spoke significantly longer and felt significantly more excited, though not significantly less anxious, than those in the other cohort.
Finally, researchers assessed 188 subjects taking a timed math test. Before starting the task, participants read one of three statements: “try to remain calm,” try to get excited,” or “please wait a few moments” (the neutral condition). Those in the excited group performed significantly better than those in the calm and neutral groups (and there was no difference between these two cohorts). Participants in the excited group also reported feeling significantly more excitement and self-efficacy than the others, but they did not experience significant differences in anxiety and heart rate.
Although researchers have additional questions to investigate, such as whether this phenomenon transfers to other tasks and populations (all three studies involved student subjects), these promising results suggest that you might be able to enhance your performance by reframing anxiety as excitement. Doing this does not completely eliminate feelings of nervousness, but it may allow you to channel your adrenaline in a positive manner. So the next time you feel nervous about something, try to instead tell yourself that you are excited. Use the comments section to let us know how this works or if you have other strategies to suggest to readers!