Feeling Anxious? Why Trying To "Keep Calm" Is A Terrible Idea

Don't keep calm and carry on. Instead of fighting your body's natural reaction to anxiety, embrace your amped-up state, and reframe your anxiety as excitement. Here's how.

A strange sign has found its way to walls across our country: Keep Calm And Carry On, a World War II-era Britishism that's become a brightly colored, boldly fonted, and mostly misguided placard of staying cool under pressure. Mainly because it totally misses the way emotions work.

"People seem to have this very strong intuition when they feel anxious to try and 'calm down,'" says Alison Wood Brooks, a professor of business administration at Harvard. "But it's actually very, very difficult to do successfully, particularly when leading up to very anxiety-inducing tasks, [like public speaking, a job interview, or singing in front of people]."

Instead of trying to force ourselves to be calm, she says, we should be getting excited--due to a psychological something called arousal congruence.

Image: Flickr user Akio Takemoto

While keeping calm might seem like a simple enough instruction, it actually conceals two steps, for every emotion has both an arousal and a valance component--and you need to regulate each in order to change the emotion.

Arousal is physical: in the case of anxiety, you have an increased heart rate, a spike of stress hormones like cortisol, and a sudden appearance of sweat. Arousal is also automatic: it's a function of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is always looking out for danger. Since arousal is so automatic, it's hard to control.

Valence is cognitive: it's the way you interpret all that physiological stuff happening inside you--how you feel about your feelings. So if you're trying to "keep calm" while you're anxious, you have to shift your perception of your emotion.

Alison Wood Brooks

When you tell yourself to "calm down" you have to make two hidden steps, moving both arousal and valence. But moving from anxiety to excitement is easier: your body can stay in an amped-up physiological state, but you re-appraise your anxiety as excitement.

"That it's a two-step process is not intuitive," Brooks says, "and understanding that you're trying to do two different things makes people more emotionally literate."

It can also make people better performers.

Here's how to practice reframing your anxiety as excitement.

Brooks recruited a group of volunteers. They were asked to take part in three kinds of experiments: tackling public speaking, math, or singing in front of people.

The subjects were primed differently in each of these cases. Before making their speech, diving into their problem sets, or launching into "Don't Stop Believing," they were asked to make one of three kinds of statements to themselves:

  • To keep calm
  • To get excited
  • Or nothing

In each of three cases, the anxious folks that told themselves a variant of "get excited" performed better: they gave more persuasive, competent, and persistent speeches; notched hire math scores, and belted out Journey with greater accuracy.

Why you do better when you get excited

Oscar Wilde, once quipped that "worry is misspent imagination": turns out that the dude was right. As Brooks explained to us, when we get worried, we're making poor investments with our attention: instead of thinking of the ways that big presentation will go right, we're spending our finite attention on what will go wrong, what's wrong with us, and what our parents did to make us inherit that behavior.

"Anxiety precludes you from exploring real solutions and real thought patterns that will come up with solutions," she says. "When you're in a positive valence, it primes an opportunity mindset, so you think of all of the good things that can happen. You're more likely to make decisions and take actions that will make that world likely to occur."

As the karaoke outcomes attest, we can actually prime that opportunity-oriented mindset.

Take, for instance, if you're about to go onstage: when someone asks you "how do you feel," tell them that you're excited. If you get in the habit of that, Brooks says, it could really improve your performance. If you're a manager, emphasize excitement rather than calmness. And if you're all by your lonesome, staring at a blank document and feeling anxiety creeping up your neck, tell yourself that you're excited to even put a paragraph on the page.

Bottom Line:

"A lot of times, anxiety is most debilitating when it leads to inaction, like you just don't know where to start," Brooks says, noting that the most productive people she knows are highly skilled at just doing a small piece of a larger project.

"Just do something and constantly work on it and revise it and hone it into a product or a performance that turns into something wonderful. I think this idea of reappraising anxiety as excitement can help inspire simple actions--to just get excited and do something."

[Image: Flickr user Casey Muir-Taylor]

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