In 5 minutes, you have to take the stage to give a presentation, and you feel yourself getting nervous. Your heart rate goes up, your hands get clammy, and your thoughts are racing in all directions. “Just keep calm,” you tell yourself. Keep calm and…
How calm? Then you think. You’re freakin’ nervous before that presentation, and you might try to calm yourself down with reassuring words; they have no effect at all!
Not the right tactic. Alison Wood Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies the phenomenon, agrees. She thinks a cognitive trick called anxiety reappraisal is much better to try if you are nervous or anxious.
I’m so excited
The tactic comes down to telling yourself that you’re excited when you’re super nervous. So you’re not trying to calm yourself down with thoughts like try to stay calm, but instead, try to cheer yourself up with the words I’m excited.
The reason? Fear and enthusiasm are both aroused emotions. In either case, that means your heart will pump faster, your cortisol level will rise, and your body will prepare for action.
The emotions are thus congruent to each other. The only difference is that enthusiasm is a positive emotion.
Though that’s not entirely true, calmness or tranquillity is, of course, also a positive emotion. But the problem with this is that it’s low in arousal.
Brooks explains, “For most people, it takes less effort for the brain to jump from exciting negative emotions to exciting, positive emotions than it would from exciting negative emotions to calm, positive emotions.”
So it’s easier to convince yourself to be excited than to stay calm when you’re anxious. And that will only improve your performance, according to Brooks research published in 2014 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
She conducted three experiments in which she had participants do tasks that are often labelled as scary. For example, they were asked to sing a song to a large group of people, give a two-minute speech in front of a camera and take a math test. Just before the frightening event, they were instructed to calm themselves, to say nothing to themselves, or to arouse enthusiasm.
The funny thing is, the participants in this last group not only felt more excited, but they also sang better, spoke longer on the speech test, and were better at solving math problems.
So your performance will improve if you instil in yourself that you are enthusiastic. But do you also feel less anxious as a result? You should not expect that the three ‘magic words’ will make you less anxious.
The underlying fear was the same in both study conditions, and the participants’ heart rates were the same. But that doesn’t matter. Your nerves don’t have to go away either, as long as you can deal with them. And that is possible with this cognitive trick.
Brook believes it works because enthusiasm creates an opportunity mindset. You emphasize the good things that can happen when you do something right. The moment you calm yourself down, you have a threat mindset, and you are focused on the negative consequences of poor performance. Good to know, right?