When you are nervous, people like to tell you to calm down, despite the fact that telling someone to calm down rarely, if ever, results in anyone actually calming down. Anyway, as Olga Khazan notes today in the Atlantic, the research shows that we are likely getting this backward — instead of attempting to tamp down your nerves, it may be better to keep them revved up. The trick, it seems, is to change the way you conceptualize the feeling.
It’s called “anxiety reappraisal,” and it’s something Harvard Business School psychologist Alison Wood Brooks found evidence for in a series of experiments, in which she made her study volunteers do all manner of terrifying things: public speaking, karaoke, math. In each of these trials, she found that when the participants reframed their jitters as excitement, and not anxiety, their performance improved.
And yet that tiny switch in mindset didn’t technically make her volunteers any less anxious, if you judged them by their physiological responses. Their hearts still beat with a frequency that signified arousal, meaning that their brains and bodies remained on high alert. And this may help explain why this little trick works: Both feelings “are aroused emotions,” Khazan writes. “In both, the heart beats faster, cortisol surges, and the body prepares for action.” In other words, anxiety and excitement are not so different on a physiological level, which may be why it’s easier to switch from one to the other than it is to switch from either high arousal state to the comparatively lower arousal state of calmness.
Likewise, both emotions suggest that some kind of uncertainty lies ahead. It’s just that excitement suggests that this potentially uncertain future is something to look forward to, whereas anxiety suggests it’s something to be feared. Brooks uses the terms “opportunity mindset” and “threat mindset,” with the former linked to excitement and the latter linked to anxiety.
You could even take the so-called opportunity mindset idea one step further, by telling yourself that you need that nervous energy to keep you on your toes during a stressful task. In a 2013 study, for example, a trio of psychologists freaked out their study volunteers by making them prepare and deliver an impromptu speech about themselves. They told about half of the participants that, yes, they’d probably feel nervous before they spoke — but to remember that their sweaty palms and racing hearts were signs that their bodies were prepping for action. The other group got no such message, and, in the end, those who were told about the upside of their nerves were less distracted by them.
So! Repeat after me: You’re not nervous; you’re excited. You’re not nervous; you’re excited. You just keep telling yourself that until it works. I’m excited for you!