Get it together. You’ll mess everything up if you can’t calm down.
I was gearing up for a presentation when the thought hit me: if I don’t calm down fast, I might blow it.
Normally, I don’t get too nervous about public speaking, but this time felt different. I was presenting to a peer group that I respect immensely, and I was sharing some important details about our product strategy. While the event was exciting, I couldn’t keep my mind off what was at stake. And it showed.
As I reviewed my talking points, my heart began to pound so loudly I could have sworn it was visible through my shirt. But my efforts to persuade myself into a state of complete calm were counterproductive. The more I tried to convince myself to chill out, the more nervous I became.
The sensation felt oddly familiar. I remembered getting ready for a first date in high school or driving to my first post-college job interview. Both situations would negatively affect me if they went poorly — but if they went well, they could be positive experiences.
In all of these instances, I was certainly anxious. But beneath the nerves was something more poignant: excitement. I wanted these scenarios to go well because I cared so much. And isn’t that a good thing?
This realization made me wonder: what if fear and excitement have more in common than we think?
The relationship between anxiety and excitement
Scientifically speaking, anxiety and excitement have a lot in common.
The racing heart, stomach butterflies, and sweaty palms we feel when anxiety hits are physical symptoms of nervous system activation, also known as the fight-or-flight response.
Here’s the science behind it: when our brains detect a threat, our nervous system triggers physical symptoms in an effort to keep us safe. Our hearts race so we can run from danger, our stomachs feel queasy because our bodies are slowing down digestion, and our palms sweat in an attempt to keep us cool.
On the other hand, calmness feels quite the opposite. When we’re relaxed, the parasympathetic nervous system slows our heart rates, returns our digestion to normal, and regulates our temperatures.
We generally return to “rest and digest” mode when our bodies perceive they’re no longer in danger — which can be difficult to do as you face something scary, whether it’s an important work meeting or a ride at a theme park.
It makes sense that shifting from anxiety to calm can feel like a big leap. So what about flipping anxiety to the other side of the coin, excitement?
Because anxiety and excitement are both “aroused” emotional experiences, making the switch from scared to elated may be as simple as re-labeling the emotion or even saying it out loud.
The power of reframing anxiety
Anxiety can feel miserable. But, the good news is, we don’t necessarily have to remain in that mental space. Reframing our nervousness by calling it what it is — another kind of “excitement” — can drastically affect our confidence levels.
Re-labeling our emotions doesn’t mean we’re lying to ourselves, either. That’s because excitement is a positive emotion, focused on what could go well instead of what could go wrong — and it leads to better performance than anxiety, let alone a state of pure calm.
In a 2014 study, Harvard professor Alison Wood Brooks researched anxiety reappraisal — basically, re-naming feelings of pre-performance anxiety as excitement.
Participants were asked to perform Journey’s song “Don’t Stop Believin,’” then told to either say out loud before the music began, “I am anxious,” “I am excited,” or nothing at all. Using a computer to measure pitch and volume, Wood Brooks found that the participants who verbally affirmed their excitement actually sang better, in spite of their nerves.
Similarly, when you feel anxious, telling yourself that your anxiety actually might be a resource for improving your performance, instead of a sign of looming failure, could also improve performance under pressure.
How we see anxiety-provoking situations can not only make us cognitively more hopeful, but it can actually affect our bodies; research shows there’s a marked difference in our physiological response if we label an event as a challenge instead of a threat.
When we tell ourselves that a difficult conversation with a co-worker may be challenging, but it’s not dangerous, we’re more likely to adapt to the situation and experience a positive outcome.
It’s all about perspective
Even if you’re not preparing for a potentially career-altering presentation (or a rock concert), a perspective shift around anxiety can be a positive force in your creative and personal life. In general, managing anxiety from day to day is much easier when it’s labeled as something less intimidating.
While fear and dread can feel like monsters that are impossible to conquer — and therefore require more emotional resources — anxiety viewed as a growth opportunity might feel more tolerable:
“There are anxiety disorders that are awful and cause great pain, physical and mental, to a lot of people, writes Simon Wolfe Taylor, author of The Conquest of Dread: Anxiety From Kierkegaard to Xanax.
But I’m also of the view that a lot of people currently being treated for anxiety disorders might be able to ameliorate that or make it more manageable if it were framed and packaged somewhat differently. If it were framed as something to be grasped and seized upon and wrestled with in order to produce creativity and ideas.
Even if anxious feelings remain, it’s possible to be thankful for anxiety; philosopher Soren Kierkegaard believed that anxiety is a response to freedom and “the responsibility we bear for our decisions in light of that freedom.”
Oddly enough, choosing to be grateful for the sweaty palms and thumping heart is another way to move forward from them. There’s also evidence that a mindset of gratitude can change the brain, making it a powerful tool in alleviating anxiety.
So whether your anxiety is physical, emotional, or a combination of both, there’s good news for you: the big, scary feeling doesn’t have to disappear in order for you to succeed. And you might even find yourself thriving because of it.