Have an end-of-year presentation coming up? What about a final exam? If you’re one to succumb to performance anxiety — that sinking feeling that you’ll fail when everything comes down to the wire — you may want to consider scrapping that “Be calm” mantra for something more enlivening, as a recent pair of studies has found that simply uttering “I’m excited” reduced performance anxiety far more than any attempts at relaxation.

The last few years in social science have seen a boom in body language research. While it’s been known for centuries that confident and relaxed people assume different poses than uptight folks (consider James Dean’s unaffected cool to Woody Allen’s terminal neuroticism), the idea that what we tell ourselves and how we carry ourselves can cause us to become more relaxed and confident is fairly new. The latest study in this area comes from Harvard Business School, as assistant professor Dr. Alison Wood Brooks has found that high-arousal anxiety should be intensified through excitement, not squandered through (often futile) calming techniques.

"Anxiety is incredibly pervasive,” Dr. Brooks said in a statement. “People have a very strong intuition that trying to calm down is the best way to cope with their anxiety, but that can be very difficult and ineffective. When people feel anxious and try to calm down, they are thinking about all the things that could go badly. When they are excited, they are thinking about how things could go well."

Calm Down? Wrong.

Think back to the last time you had to speak publicly. Even if you are a wizened presenter, keen on imagining audiences in their birthday suits, chances are the moments before your presentation were still riddled with trace butterflies. The conventional wisdom tells us we’re supposed to take deep breaths and try to return to a state of non-arousal, slowing our heart rate and reminding ourselves that “it’s not that big of a deal.” But sometimes the stakes truly are high. Sometimes we need to pass this one test to reach a certain pay grade or get into college. What then?

According to Dr. Brooks’ research, the answer may be to fight fire with fire. Her first study involved 140 participants (63 men) who were told to prepare a persuasive speech that was going to be videotaped and judged for effectiveness and quality by a committee. Subjects were either told to recite “I am excited” or “I am calm” before their speech. Overwhelmingly, the people who stayed in a state of arousal with their “I am excited” mantra delivered a more persuasive speech in a more relaxed manner than those who had actually tried to become calm.

"The way we talk about our feelings has a strong influence on how we actually feel," Dr. Brooks explained.

In much the same vein, the second study involved 113 participants (54 men) who were told to either report a mood of anger, sadness, excitement, anxiety, calmness, or nothing (control) before singing karaoke. All subjects wore heart rate monitors while they belted out their respective tunes. The purpose? To evaluate how much the simple, stated emotion affected performance. Like the preceding study, Dr. Brooks found people in the excitement group performed better (80 percent score) based on the game’s rating of pitch, rhythm, and volume compared to people who were calm, angry, or sad (69 percent), and even better still than the “anxious” subjects (53 percent).

Think, "Wonder Woman"

These two studies uphold a phenomenon that has been quickly emerging in the field of social psychology. When we affirm to ourselves that we feel a certain way, we begin to embody that emotion. Usually, of course, that relationship usually travels the other way. Usually, we experience sadness or anxiety or excitement before saying so. But lately the theories have been pointing backwards — such as one study that found standing with your hands on your hips for two minutes increases testosterone and cortisol in your bloodstream.

Led by Harvard researcher Dr. Amy Cuddy, the team found that the fear of entering daunting social situations can be tempered through “power poses” — the “Wonder Woman,” as it’s often referred to. Standing with your legs wide and hands on your hips makes you physically wider and instills in you a sense of intimidation. Like the massive grizzly bear, you see yourself as more confident, and in turn others see you that way, too. And according to Dana Carney, who studies power dynamics and posture at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, these effects may last much longer than a single meeting.

In fact, “it could start a physiological cascade that lasts all day,” he told The New York Times.

People who assume power poses have also been found to take greater initiative in a situation and display a greater tolerance to pain. What’s more, recovering alcoholics who took a more Deanian approach, rather than an Allenian one, were less likely to relapse on their path to sobriety.

Overall, people were more likely to meet their goals when they fulfilled a false demeanor, which has led Dr. Cuddy and others to argue less in favor of “faking it ‘til you make it,” and instead for “faking it ‘til you become it.” After the first few or so anxiety-stricken meetings or tests, the forced and stilted “I’m excited” may no longer be. Eventually, you’ll realize, you aren’t simply pretending to be confident. You genuinely are.

“When you feel anxious, you're ruminating too much and focusing on potential threats," Dr. Brooks concluded. "In those circumstances, people should try to focus on the potential opportunities. It really does pay to be positive, and people should say they are excited. Even if they don't believe it at first, saying 'I'm excited' out loud increases authentic feelings of excitement."

 

Source: Brooks A. Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 2013.