Most people believe that trying to “calm down” is the best way to handle this kind of pre-performance anxiety.
It turns out that most people have it wrong.
A recent study, by Alison Wood Brooks at the Harvard Business School, investigated this problem and her findings may surprise you and, more importantly, may help you to perform better next time you are standing in front of your boss making a presentation.
While the fear of failure can sometimes motivates us to work harder and prepare better, high levels of anxiety usually exert a negative influence on performance. Anxiety drains working memory (by wasting it on worrying and ruminating rather than the task at hand) and it decreases self-confidence. Thinking can slow to a crawl like a video that keeps stopping to buffer because of a poor internet connection.
To avoid these all too familiar negative effects of anxiety many of us instinctively attempt to regulate the feeling by trying to “calm down.” Unfortunately, this is an unreliable technique because the “off” switch for this kind of arousal can be hard to find, especially under pressure. Efforts to suppress anxiety may even increase the intensity of the feeling.
So what should you do if you’re feeling anxious before that next presentation?
Ms. Brook’s research demonstrates the surprising effectiveness of a simple strategy of reappraising anxiety as excitement. Across a variety of situations in her study, individuals who redefined their arousal as “excitement” (rather than anxiety) performed better than those who attempted to “calm down.”
You can do this by using a very minimal technique like saying to yourself “I am excited” or “Get excited!” which nudges you toward adopting an opportunity mindset as opposed to a threat mindset.
This approach leverages the advantage of something psychologists call arousal congruency. Converting anxiety into calmness requires both a physiological shift from high to low arousal and a cognitive shift from negative to positive. Reappraising anxiety as excitement requires only a cognitive change because anxiety and excitement are both high arousal states, i.e. they are arousal congruent.
The way we end up feeling about something has a lot to do with how we verbalize and think about those feelings. Telling yourself “I’m excited” before a presentation offers a simple and effective intervention you can use to catalyze a positive mindset and improve performance.