You might think of performance anxiety as something that strikes when you need to be on stage. But performance anxiety can appear in everyday life - when you need to give a speech, talk in front of colleagues or a class, take a math test or when you are the center of attention. It causes feelings of dread and panic. It fills you with fear and can bring on all the symptoms of anxiety such as sweating, rapid heartbeat, dry mouth or feeling dizzy.
Many people try strategies such as deep breathing, taking extra time to prepare or visualization to help them relax and get through whatever performance is coming up. According to a recent study, changing your perspective and telling yourself "I am excited" rather than "I am nervous," helps to lower levels of performance anxiety and even increased performance. The studies were conducted by Alison Wood Brooks, Ph.D. of Harvard Business School and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Brooks conducted three studies relating to performances: public speaking, singing and math. The fourth study was used to try to explain why reassessing nervousness as excitement reduced anxiety levels.
- In the first study, 140 participants were divided into three groups and all were asked to prepare and deliver a two minute speech on "why you are a good work partner." One group was instructed to say, "I am excited," before giving the speech. Another group was instructed to state, "I am calm." The control group was not given any instruction. The results showed that the group who stated they were excited performed better. They gave longer and more persuasive speeches.
- In the second study, 188 students were asked to complete a difficult math problem. Again, students were asked to state, "Try to get excited," or "Try to remain calm." There was a control group that was not given instructions. Students who were asked to express excitement scored an average of 8 percent higher on the math problem.
- In the third study, Brooks divided a group of 113 university students into six groups. All the students were to perform a karaoke song on a Nintendo Wii console. Different groups indicated they were anxious, excited, calm, angry or sad. The control group was not given any instructions. Students who stated they were excited scored higher on pitch, rhythm and volume. These students also stated they had greater feelings of excitement and confidence.
Working with Your Anxiety
In all three of the studies, students were placed in situations that typically cause nervousness and anxiety. She increased anxiety in some cases, such as telling students their speech was going to be reviewed and judged. Many times, the first reaction when nervous is to try to calm yourself down, which, in some ways is trying to deny the fact that you are nervous. You can tell yourself "I feel calm" but that doesn’t necessarily stop your heart from beating wildly. Telling yourself you are calm, when your body is telling you just the opposite, doesn’t work.
Physical sensations of excitement more closely resemble nervousness. Therefore, you might be able to more reasonably tell yourself that you are excited. You can accept your physical sensations, the shortness of breath and the heart palpitations, as signs of excitement rather than anxiety. Dr. Brooks believes this is why telling yourself you are excited works better than telling yourself you are calm. Simply stating "I am excited," (saying it out loud is best), automatically changes your thinking and lets you look at positive possibilities rather than negative ones. It changes the situation from threat to opportunity.
"Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement," 2013, Alison Wood Brooks, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General: https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/xge-a0035325.pdf
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.