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The Secret To Making Anxiety Work In Your Favor

As psychologist Amy Cuddy explains, we may not be able to extinguish anxiety, but we can learn to interpret it differently.

[Photo: Flickr user rafa_luque]

Alison Wood Brooks, a colleague of mine at Harvard Business School, also happens to be a talented singer. She's logged hundreds of hours in front of audiences, and her poise on stage is enviable. As both a performer and a psychologist, Brooks appreciates not only how that kind of poise can make for good leadership, but also how many of us struggle to find it when we’re performing. So she set out to find some simple changes that might help people overcome their performance anxiety.

If you’re a fan of the superviral "keep calm" meme, you'll likely be surprised by what she found.

Why Not To Calm Down

As most of us know, stage fright can feel like a paralyzing overdose of anxiety. And what do people tell us to do when we’re anxious? They tell us, with good intentions, to calm down. As it turns out, that might just be the very worst thing they can say.

You see, anxiety is what psychologists describe as a high‑arousal emotion. When we’re anxious, we occupy a heightened state of physiological vigilance. We’re hyper-alert. Our hearts race, we break out in a sweat, our cortisol may spike—all these reactions are controlled automatically by our nervous system. And it’s virtually impossible for most people to shut off that kind of automatic arousal, to abruptly de-escalate it.

Not only can we not calm down, but when someone tells us to calm down, it also reminds us of how calm we are not, which stokes our anxiety even more.

But there’s another high‑arousal emotion that’s not so negative. In fact, it’s quite positive: excitement. Brooks predicted that we may not be able to extinguish arousal, but we should be able to change the way we interpret it. So rather than fruitlessly trying to change the arousal level of our emotional states from high to low, what if we try to change them from negative to positive? From anxiety to excitement?

To test her prediction, Brooks ran a series of experiments, putting subjects in several situations that elicit stage fright: a singing competition (in which they sang Journey’s "Don’t Stop Believin’"), a public‑speaking contest, and a difficult math exam. In each experiment, subjects were randomly assigned to tell themselves one of three things before their "performance": (1) to keep calm, (2) to get excited, or (3) nothing.

In all three contexts—singing, speaking, and math—the subjects who took a moment to reframe their anxiety as excitement outperformed the others.

Get Excited!

When you’re excited, Brooks later explained to Fast Company, "It primes an opportunity mind-set, 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 [good results] likely to occur."

Because I’m lucky enough to work in an office that’s around 20 yards down the hall from Alison Wood Brooks’s office, we’ve had quite a few conversations about this work. "Although we haven’t studied this phenomenon over long periods of time," she explained, "I suspect that saying, ‘I am excited,’ or doing your best to ‘get excited’ before every anxiety‑provoking performance does not have diminishing marginal returns—that is, it doesn’t necessarily become less effective over time."

"On the contrary," Brooks continued, "the positive effects are likely to compound over time. The more you reframe your anxiety as excitement, the happier and more successful you may become." By focusing on each new moment in front of you instead of the performance outcome, you slowly, incrementally nudge yourself toward becoming a bolder, more authentic, more effective version of yourself.

Brooks has found that approach personally helpful: "Reframing anxiety as excitement has helped me with singing and playing music in front of crowds, presenting my research, pitching my entrepreneurial ideas, teaching undergraduate, MBA, and executive students, and interacting with my Harvard colleagues every day." When a psychologist is actually able to use her research in her own life, you know you’re on to something good!

By simply reframing the meaning of the emotion we’re experiencing—by nudging ourselves from anxiety to excitement—we shift our psychological orientation, harnessing the cognitive and physiological resources we need to succeed under pressure. We effectively transform our stage fright into stage presence.

This article is adapted from Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy. Copyright © 2015 by Amy Cuddy. It is reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.