Anxiety or Excitement? It’s up to You
Posted by Stephane Gaskin PhD on Jan 24, 2014
Anxiety or Excitement? It’s up to you was written by Stephane Gaskin PhD.
Anxiety is a negative state of mind. It is characterized by heightened physiological arousal (e.g. faster heartbeat and respiration) often accompanied by a sensation of dread. We often feel anxious about performing a task for which we are pressured to do well, or for which we will be evaluated. We may also feel anxious about an uncertain future.
Excitement is a positive state of mind. Excitement is also associated with physiological arousal. The physiological arousal present during excitement is the same as when we feel anxious. We feel excited when we anticipate that an event will go well, will bring us joy and that we will succeed.
With the physiological arousal being the same for both states of mind, whether you feel anxiety or excitement about a future event is often up to you. Much of it is in the way that you appraise your physiological arousal. In other words, in the meaning you give to it.
Think about it! Say you have an important speech coming up. In the days leading up to it you may feel increased tension in your body. The thought about speaking in public makes your heart pound and you get a queasy feeling in your stomach.
You can appraise and deal with those feelings in different ways. For example, you can be telling yourself, “Oh my God! I’m so nervous about this talk, I am such a wreck”. You can also try some self-talk in order to calm yourself down “OK calm down…relax.” However, research shows that these kinds of appraisals will only perpetuate feeling bad and anxious about the event and its outcome and will lead to impaired performance.
Recent research shows that a better strategy is to reappraise your physiological arousal as excitement, instead of anxiety, fear or trying to calm yourself down. A researcher at Harvard Business School told subjects, in different experiments, that they were going to sing, speak in public or be doing a math test. Being told this produced significant physiological arousal in the subjects. The subjects were then made to appraise their arousal by reading one of the following statements (among others): “I am excited,” “I am anxious,” or “I am calm.”
She found that subjects appraising their physiological arousal as “excitement” performed significantly better on all tasks than when they appraised it as being anxious or by telling themselves that they are calm. This may be happening because when telling yourself that you are excited about something makes you focus more on the opportunities that may result from the event rather than the threats. That is, having an opportunity mindset versus a threat mindset. Having an opportunity mindset is related to the belief that you will reach a positive outcome, whereas having a threat mindset is related to the belief that the outcome of the event will be negative.
So next time you are faced with a task, situation or event that causes your body to react, think about how this is the result of excitement associated with the opportunities for personal growth that it will bring, not about how it is the result of anxiety and a threat to your self-esteem, being judged negatively, or by the prospect of everything going wrong.
Stephane Gaskin PhD
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