Human beings, being human, get anxious. We all do, except psychopaths. An estimated 40 million Americans suffer from anxiety of some form at any given time. Some of us get really, really anxious, like Scott Stossel, a writer and editor at the Atlantic whose memoir of a lifelong and often paralyzing struggle with the condition is about to be published. For those of us to whom anxiety is a more occasional visitor, the condition can be crippling.
There’s a reason for performance anxiety, of course; it focuses the mind, and without it some of us would never complete anything. But there are real costs, as well: Anxiety has been shown to sap our working memory and information processing, the very capacities we need to perform well in any task that requires thinking. “Anxious negotiators make low first offers, exit early, and earn less profit than neutral state negotiators,” writes Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. “Similarly, anxious individuals seek out and rely more heavily on advice, even when the advice is obviously bad, because they do not feel confident in their own ability to make good judgments.”
Faced with performance anxiety, the counsel we usually give ourselves and others is to relax. But new research (pdf) by Brooks suggests that’s the wrong approach. After all, as anyone who’s tried it can attest, calming oneself down before a big test, interview, or performance is pretty futile and why “Keep Calm and Carry On” seems comical. Brooks suggests a better way: Transmute your nervous energy into excitement.
In a series of studies, Brooks had subjects perform stress-inducing tasks such as singing karaoke, giving a speech, and taking a math test. She had them say out loud, beforehand, either “I am calm” or “I am excited” (in some studies was also a group that said neither). As far as manipulations go, this may not sound like much, but it was enough to create an effect. The test subjects who told themselves they were excited reported, after the fact, feeling more excited. And, more strikingly, they performed better at the stressful tasks they were called on to do. The excited subjects outperformed those who had told themselves they were calm and those who hadn’t told themselves anything. Test subjects who convinced themselves they were excited sang better—more in tune, more in rhythm—they received higher marks from listeners on their speeches, and they scored higher on the math tests.
Brooks’s explanation for this is that we can trick ourselves into perceiving anxiety, at least partially, as excitement. While calm feels nothing like anxiety, excitement feels sort of like it. Calm is a low arousal state; anxiety and excitement are high-arousal states. As a result, changing anxiety into calm requires flipping both the intensity (high to low) and the valence (negative to positive). Changing anxiety into excitement just requires one of those flips. The two emotions are, as Brooks puts it, “arousal contingent.” Those butterflies in your stomach? That’s not apprehension; it’s anticipation. Interestingly, Brooks found that subjects who psyched themselves up didn’t feel any less anxious; they just felt excited in addition, and that seems to have drowned out the nerves.
Why would excitement lend a performance edge? Brooks suggests it changes the way we see stressful tasks. She found that subjects who psyched themselves up rather than tried to calm themselves down were more likely to see evaluative situations as opportunities rather than threats, a mindset that in other research has correlated with better performance.
If Brooks is right, it’s not just football players and boxers who should prepare themselves for high-stakes challenges by whipping themselves up. Concert pianists, quiz bowl participants, surgeons, and PowerPoint jockeys alike should prepare themselves by embracing the buzz of their jangling nerves, not trying to quiet them. Her findings about the mutability of emotional valence could also come in handy in wrestling with other negative emotions. She suggests, for example, that boredom might be amenable to a similar approach. When we’re bored, we tend to try to rouse ourselves into excitement. That’s essentially the reverse of trying to calm anxiety. A better approach, she suggests, might be to try to convince ourselves we’re feeling a positive but similarly low-arousal emotion: calm.