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Feeling Anxious? Tell Yourself to Be Excited—It's the Best Way to Calm Down

Lori L. Stalteri/Flickr

Around 18 percent of Americans suffer from a clinically diagnosable anxiety disorder, but around 100 percent of humans experience stage fright or anxiety at some point in their lives. In his new memoir, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread and the Search for Peace of Mind, Atlantic editor Scott Stossel documents his own case of chronic anxiety, which he says has plagued him since the age of two. For Stossel, nothing has been effective—not individual psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, family therapy, hypnosis, meditation, yoga or drugs. The majority of Americans, who deal with anxiety only as an occasional reaction to a stressful event, usually cope with it by trying to relax—but new research reveals this may be the wrong technique. In a new paper, forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Alison Wood Brooks, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, argues that the most effective way of dealing with feelings of anxiety is not to fight them, but to reframe them: It may be more effective to tell yourself you’re excited than to try to convince yourself that you're actually calm. Physiologically, feeling excitement is similar to feeling anxiety—only it doesn’t get in the way of whatever you need to do.

“When felt immediately before or during a task, anxiety drains working memory capacity, decreases self-confidence, and harms performance,” explains Brooks. “Anticipating the negative consequences of feeling anxious, many individuals attempt to down-regulate anxiety by trying to calm down. But decreasing anxious feelings is difficult because high arousal is automatic, and suppressing or hiding anxiety is often ineffective.”

Emotion regulation scholars have focused on two common strategies individuals use to down-regulate negative emotions like anxiety: reappraisal and suppression....Individuals use suppression to inhibit the expression of negative emotions. For example, after receiving an insulting comment, an individual might "bite his tongue" to avoid showing that he is feeling hurt or angry….In contrast, reappraisal occurs early in the emotion-generative process and is a form of cognitive change that involves construing an emotion-eliciting situation in a way that changes its emotional impact.

Brooks and her team devised a series of experiments to explore how people performed under pressure when they attempted to recast their anxiety as excitement.

Whereas anxiety is a negative, aversive emotion that harms performance, excitement is a positive, pleasant emotion that can improve performance (Cropanzano, James, & Konovsky, 1993; Jamieson et al., 2010). Anxiety and excitement have divergent effects on performance, but the experience of these two emotions is quite similar…Unlike anxious versus calm feelings, which differ in high versus low arousal, anxiety and excitement are physiologically similar, and minimal interventions may be sufficient to shift valence and produce genuine feelings of excitement (Schachter & Singer, 1962).

In one experiment, Brooks and her team asked 140 people to prepare a speech on the topic of “why you are a good work partner.” In case this prospect was not daunting enough, participants were also told that the speech would be videotaped and judged by a committee of their peers. Half the participants were instructed to tell themselves, “I am excited!” just before delivering the speech, while the other half was told to repeat the mantra, “I am calm.” When independent raters analyzed the taped speeches, the group that told themselves they felt excited performed better across several measures: They were consistently ranked as more persuasive, more competent and more confident. Members of this group also ranked their own competence more highly than the other group—though both groups reported similar levels of anxiety.

In another experiment, Brooks administered a timed math test to 188 students, offering a performance-based financial incentive to make it even more stressful. For some of the students—who were taking the test on a computer— the screen flashed “Try to remain calm,” while for others, the words “Get excited!” appeared. Those encouraged to “get excited” scored, on average, 8 percent higher than those told to “try to remain calm”, though both groups' heart rates increased to similar levels.