Are You Excited Yet? Anxiety as Positive “Excitement” to Improve Performance

Alison Wood Brooks

Alison Wood Brooks

People can improve performance in tasks as varied as public speaking, mathematical problem solving, and karaoke singing, by reappraising anxiety as “excitement,” according to Harvard’s Alison Wood Brooks.

Using silent self-talk messages like “I am excited” or reading self-direction messages like “Get excited!” fosters an “opportunity mind-set” by increasing “congruence” between physical arousal experience and situational appraisal.

Michael Eysenck

Michael Eysenck

Unlike “excitement,” anxiety drains working memory capacity, decreases self-confidence, self-efficacy, and performance for non-experts before or during a task, according to Michael W. Eysenck of Unversity of London.

Further, trying to counteract anxiety with “calm” is difficult and usually ineffective because it represents a large shift from negative emotion to neutral or positive emotion and from physiological activation to low arousal levels, noted Brooks.

Stefan Hofmann

Stefan Hofmann

In addition, efforts to “calm” physiological arousal during anxiety can result in a paradoxical increase in the suppressed, warded-off emotion, reported Stefan Hofmann of Boston University and colleagues.
However, most people in Woods’ studies still believed that the best way to handle anxiety is to increase calmness, whether for themselves or for a co-worker.

Jeremy Jamieson

Jeremy Jamieson

In contrast to the usually-unpleasant experience of anxiety, “excitement” is typically viewed as a positive, pleasant emotion that can improve performance, according to Harvard’s Jeremy Jamieson and colleagues.

Anxiety and excitement have similar physiological arousal profiles, but different effects on performance.

Stanley Schachter

Stanley Schachter

This can lead to mislabeling and confusing the two experiences, demonstrated in much-cited studies by Columbia’s Stanley Schacter and Jerome Singer of SUNY.
Anxiety’s similarity to excitement can be used to advantage by intentionally relabeling uncomfortably high “anxiety” as pleasant “excitement” to mitigate anxiety’s negative impact on performance.

Jerome Singer

Jerome Singer

Brooks provoked anxiety by telling volunteers that they would present an impromptu, videotaped speech.

For some participants, she moderated anxiety by mentioning that it is “normal” to feel discomfort or fear and asked them to “take a realistic perspective on this task, by recognizing that there is no reason to feel anxious” and “the situation does not present a threat to you…there are no negative consequences to be concerned with.”
She also told volunteers to say aloud randomly-assigned self-statements like “I am excited.”

People who stated I am excitedbefore their speech were rated as more persuasive, more competent more confident, and more persistent (spoke longer), than participants who said “I am calm.”

Brooks evaluated peoples’ reactions to another anxiety-provoking task, performing a karaoke song for an audience and rated by program’s voice recognition software for “singing accuracy” based on:

  • Volume (quiet-loud)
  • Pitch (distance from true pitch)
  • Note duration (accuracy of breaks between notes).

This score determined participants’ payment for participating in the study.

Before performing, she asked participants to make a randomly-assigned self-statement:

  • “I am anxious”
  • “I am excited”
  • “I am calm”
  • “I am angry”
  • “I am sad”
  • No statement.

Following their performance, volunteers rated their anxiety, excitement, and confidence in their singing ability.
People who said that they were “excited” had higher pulse rates than other groups, confirming that self-statements can affect physical experiences of emotion.

In addition, volunteers who said “I am excited” has the highest scores for singing accuracy and also for “singing self-efficacy” – confidence in singing skill.

In contrast, those who said, “I am anxious had the lowest scores for singing accuracy, suggesting that focus on anxiety is associated with lower performance.

Brooks elicited anxiety on “a very difficult IQ test…under time pressure” that would determine their payment for participation.
To evoke further anxiety, she concluded, “Good luck minimizing your loss.”

Before the test, participants read a statement:

  • “Try to remain calm” or
  • “Try to get excited.”

Those instructed to “get excited” produced more correct answers than those who tried to “remain calm.”

Across these anxiety-provoking tasks encountered in daily life – public speaking, cognitive tasks, creative performance – reappraising anxiety as “excitement” increased the subjective experience of “excitement” instead of anxiety, and improved subsequent performance.

Because reappraisal as “excitement” is congruent with physiological arousal common to both anxiety and excitement, volunteers more readily endorsed the reappraisal than the “arousal incongruent” appraisal of calmness.

Stéphane Côté

Stéphane Côté

Inauthentic emotional displays can be physically and psychologically demanding, according to University of Toronto’s Stéphane Côté and Christopher Miners, but arousal-congruent reappraisal primed an “opportunity mind-set” and a stress-is-enhancing” mind-set, which enabled superior performance across different anxiety-arousing situations.

People have “profound control and influence …over our own emotions,” according to Woods.
She noted that “Saying “I am excited” represents a simple, minimal intervention…to prime an opportunity mind-set and improve performance…

Advising employees to say “I am excited” before important performance tasks or simply encouraging them to “get excited” may increase their confidence, improve performance, and boost beliefs in their ability to perform well in the future.”

 -*How effective have you found focusing on “excitement” instead of “calm” in managing anxiety?

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2 thoughts on “Are You Excited Yet? Anxiety as Positive “Excitement” to Improve Performance

  1. Pingback: Anxiety Undermines Negotiation Performance | Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary

  2. Pingback: Paradox of Potential: May be More Appealing than Achievement in Job Search | Kathryn Welds | Curated Research and Commentary

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