You’ve seen the popular phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On” emblazoned on everything from coffee mugs to T-shirts. But what happens if, when met with a stressful situation, you do just the opposite?
Researcher Alison Wood Brooks, a negotiation professor at Harvard Business School, investigated just that, questioning whether re-framing anxiety as excitement had an effect on performance. Brooks published her findings online for the American Psychological Association.
“Anxiety is incredibly pervasive. 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,” Brooks told the American Psychological Association. “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.”
While Brooks notes there are some benefits to anxiety, such as increased preparation before an event, right before or during a task, anxiety can be harmful because it drains memory, wasting energy on worrying instead of focusing on the task.
To prove her theory, Brooks conducted four experiments with 300 college students and adults performing various stressful tasks like singing karaoke in front of a stranger (Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”), public speaking, and completing a timed math test. Brooks measured participants’ heart rates before, during, and after the task. She asked some members of the group to say, “I am excited” or “I am calm” (and try to believe it) before starting their task.
In the karaoke experiment, Brooks found the participants who were excited performed better than those who were anxious and trying to remain calm. Similarly, participants in the timed math test experiment who were excited scored significantly higher than the calm group.
In another study, 140 college students were given two minutes to prepare a taped persuasive speech about why they’d make a good work partner. Some participants were instructed to repeat either the mantra “I am excited” or “I am calm” immediately before the speech. The excited group was rated as more persuasive, competent, and confident than their counterparts.