A New Outlook On Performance Anxiety

Imagine being on stage in front of your co-workers, about to give a presentation that will make or break your career. You will probably feel your heart pounding, butterflies in your stomach, and maybe even short of breath or shaky. These symptoms of anxiety are common when people are about to do something major, such as give a public speech or performance of some kind, take a big test, or participate in an important event like a wedding.

When people exhibit such signs of anxiety, the advice most often heard is to relax and calm down. It seems to make sense, and numerous studies have shown the efficacy of meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness activities on appeasing anxiety issues. However, a new study has decided to take a different approach to helping people deal with anxiety: get excited.


The Studies

Dr. Alison Wood Brooks, PhD, from Harvard Business School performed a few experiments to see how well saying the phrase “I am excited” can help people overcome the fear and anxiety common before a big performance. The experiments have been published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

There were three initial studies, one focusing on singing, one on public speaking, and one on math. In the first study, a group of 113 university students were asked to sing a song using the “Karaoke Revolution: Glee” game on the Nintendo Wii. The next study focused on 140 students who had to prepare a public speech in two minutes. The third had 188 students complete a difficult math exercise within a time limit. There was a fourth study that analyzed the other three studies to determine why being excited rather than anxious changed how one performed.

Public Speaking Test

In the public speaking test, the students’ natural anxiety about public speaking was increased by being told that their speech would be taped by a researcher and the results were to be judged by a committee. One group of students was told to say “I am excited” prior to the speech, another group was to say “I am calm,” and a control group said neither phrase.

Independent evaluators provided ratings evaluating how well the students spoke. Overall, those who used the word excited rather than calm had better speeches that were longer and more persuasive, and the person was more relaxed and confident while speaking.

For the math test, participants were again divided into three groups and given different sets of instructions. One set of instructions said to “try to get excited,” one to “try to calm down,” and a control group had no such instructions. The group that was told to try and feel excited had an average 8 percent higher score than those who were trying to remain calm.

The Karaoke Experiment

The karaoke singing experiment was slightly different. Each student who played the game was randomly assigned an emotion that included anxious, excited, calm, angry, and sad. The students were to say they felt that particular emotion prior to their performance, and there was a control group whose members made no statement.

In order to judge a person’s anxiety level, the heart rate was monitored by a pulse meter on a finger. The video game measured performance through its built-in rating and scoring system. Those who said they were excited had an average rating score of 80 percent for their rhythm, pitch and volume.

Those who were calm, angry or sad only had an average of 69 percent, and those who were anxious scored an average of 53. Additionally, those assigned to be excited said they actually felt more excited and more confident in their ability to sing.

The State Of Arousal

Dr. Brooks developed her experiments on the idea that the state of arousal that occurs due to performance anxiety is closer to what people feel when excited rather than when calm. Excitement taps into the same stress response associated with fight or flight that occurs when a person is anxious or afraid.

Therefore, the physical response in the body when one is excited is butterflies in the stomach, nausea, a pounding heart, shortness of breath, and other physiological arousal symptoms. The body feels these two emotions so similarly that people often confuse excitement over something new with anxiety or fear.

Change Anxiety To Excitement

Therefore, it is easier to change feelings of anxiety to excitement rather than trying to calm the body down. Saying you are excited, particularly saying it aloud, appears to make people feel excited rather than anxious. This may be a case of guiding the brain’s perception of physical symptoms, but even if the feeling is not true at first, it will become authentic.

Your brain will easily believe that you are excited because the body is having the right physiological response. Dr. Brooks also says that another way to try to be excited rather than calm down is to focus on the potential opportunities rather than the potential threats and remain positive.

Next time you have a big test, have to speak in front of an audience, or feel anxious or fearful about a performance, just tell yourself you are excited. You just might find yourself not only feeling better but also performing better.

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