Feeling Anxious? Don’t Calm Down, Get Excited
The student sitting outside my office was shaking like a leaf, breathing quickly, and stuttering over her words. She was due to make a presentation in 15 minutes to lecture theatre packed with students. To add to the pressure, the presentation was being assessed and marked by her tutor, and would contribute to her final degree grade.
She was surrounded by a number of well meaning friends who were telling her to ‘calm down.’ Unfortunately, telling someone to ‘calm down’ when they are feeling anxious is about the worst thing you can say to them. It just reminds them of how calm they are not, which can escalate their anxiety even further.
So what should we do? Well, instead of trying to calm down, there is now evidence that, if we interpret our anxiety as ‘excitement’, we’re more likely to use it to take action that will result in more positive behaviour and better performances. This is because excitement, like anxiety, is a high arousal state. Eliminating a high arousal state is almost impossible, but reinterpreting it is relatively easy.
The research demonstrated that reframing fear as excitement increased performance in a number of tasks — such as speaking, singing, and academic exams) — particularly those involving social evaluation. It suggested that thinking of anxiety as excitement primes us for an opportunity mindset. This enables us to think of all the good things that could happen, and therefore more likely to make decisions that will make positive results more likely to occur.
Further good news is that continuing to reframe anxiety as excitement in the future doesn’t have diminishing returns. We don’t adapt to this strategy, making it less effective, but conversely, the benefits compound over time, enabling us to engage in more positive behaviour and performances, despite the anxious feelings. By focusing on the excitement, rather than the outcome of our performance, we are slowly pushed into more courageous, authentic, and effective versions of ourselves.
So what happened to that anxious student? I quickly told her the benefits of reframing her anxiety into excitement, and advised her to try to focus on the task rather than the outcome. She introduced herself to the audience by saying how excited she was and then went on to perform extremely well. We will never know if this was this all down to interpreting her anxiety as excitement, but the reported that change in mindset definitely helped her start in a more positive frame of mind.
So next time you’re feeling anxious about a task you have to perform, don’t waste your time trying to fruitlessly calm yourself down. Embrace the excitement.