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Anxious about a big event? Try getting excited, study says

If you've ever displayed any nervousness before a big presentation, speech, meeting, or performance, you've probably received advice that goes something like this: "Just breathe deeply and relax. You'll do better if you can let go of the stress and get loose."

Most people believe that this is the only useful course of action — that relaxing and calming down is the key to dealing with performance anxiety. However, a 2014 study by Harvard Business School professor Allison Brooks suggests that there may be a better option for delivering well under pressure: re-appraising your anxiety as excitement.

The study involved several experiments in which participants completed tasks that tend to produce nervous reactions — such as public speaking, solving math problems, and performing a karaoke rendition of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" (seriously!) — under stressful conditions, such as under a time constraint or with an audience of strangers watching. Before performing the task, the participants were asked to repeat one of several randomly-assigned phrases out loud to themselves and to "really try to believe" the content of the phrase. In each experiment, the randomized phrases included some variant of the self-directed sentiment "I am excited" or the command "get excited."

Surprisingly, across all three experiments the study used to investigate this tactic, the participants who were asked to repeat "I am excited" or some variant thereon experienced better results than those who repeated other phrases or no phrase at all. Sometimes these results involved exterior measures of performance, such as speech persuasiveness in the public speaking experiment, or pitch accuracy as determined by the Nintendo Wii karaoke game Karaoke Revolution in the Journey-singing experiment. But across the board, those participants who repeated "I am excited" or a variation reported a stronger sense of self-efficacy, "the belief that one can succeed on a specific task," than those who didn't — including participants who told themselves "I am calm" or the like. Interestingly, the "I am excited" participants didn't report lower degrees of anxiety when they performed their task, but their performance improved along other measures nonetheless.


The above bar chart shows the relative public speaking experiment performance ratings of the "I am excited" group versus that of the "I am calm" group. As you can see, the "I am excited" group outperformed the "I am calm" group in such measures as persuasiveness, competence, confidence, and persistence.

These findings imply that fighting the feeling of anxiety may be less productive than trying to repurpose it so that it's more useful. As Brooks puts it in the paper's conclusion:

"My findings demonstrate the profound control and influence we have over our own emotions. The way we verbalize and think about our feelings helps to construct the way we actually feel. Saying “I am excited” represents a simple, minimal intervention that can be used quickly and easily to prime an opportunity mind-set and improve performance. This tool may be particularly helpful for managers in organizations to motivate their employees. For example, advising employees to say “I am excited” before important performance tasks or simply encouraging them to “get excited” may increase their confidence, improve performance, and boost beliefs in their ability to perform well in the future."

Of course, multiple studies would be needed to truly verify this effect. And this study faces some limitations itself. For instance, the tasks the participants performed were relatively low-stakes in nature; it's easy to imagine how a simple tactic like saying "I am excited" to yourself out loud might prove less effective in a truly high-stress situation like a job interview, as opposed to singing karaoke for a small cash reward. But even despite these issues, this study points to a novel way to manage performance anxiety that could prove very handy when dealing with the small stressors that we encounter in everyday life.

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