This time of year can be pretty spooky! With midterms in college, the change of seasons, and, of course, Halloween, there is a lot that can make us a little more nervous than we might be on your average summer day at camp. I often feel this way this time of year as winter approaches and the calendar starts to fill up at a faster rate. In that spirit, I recently came across a study by Alison Wood Brooks from Harvard Business School who explored the theory that when we feel anxious or nervous, by simply saying “I am excited,” and reclaiming your feelings, you can help manage how you perform in these situations
Of course, I was skeptical when I heard this theory myself. How can you simply wish away anxious feelings by tricking yourself into being excited? The more I thought, the more it made sense to me. Anxiety and excitement are very similar reactions physiologically – butterflies in your stomach, racing heart, heightened adrenaline. Further, Brooks qualifies them both as emotions felt in anticipation of events and are characterized by high arousal. “Unlike anxious versus calm feelings, which differ in high versus low arousal, anxiety and excitement are arousal congruent, and minimal interventions may be sufficient to produce feelings of excitement.” In other words, anxiety and excitement are two side of the same page, and we can choose which one to look toward.
The difference is your mindset, shifting from threat mindset to opportunity mindset.
Think about a time you were nervous before a big game or test. If you let the anxiety of that event weigh on you, it likely had a negative impact on the outcome. “Anxiety can drain memory capacity, decrease self-confidence, and generally harm performance.” Conversely if you allowed yourself to be excited about that event, where “anxiety is a negative, aversive emotion that harms performance, excitement is a positive, pleasant emotion that can improve performance.”
Two great examples of where to find this type of mindset shift is in sports and theatre. In sports, we see this all the time from school Pep Rallies before an important game, to locker room speeches intended to get everyone excited. Think about every sports movie you have ever watched (i.e. Mighty Ducks under the stars this summer), there always comes a moment when a team’s anxiety is shifted to excitement by a speech or event and, through that reclamation of their emotions, they are able to succeed.
This is common in theatre as well when a cast gets together before a show to warm up and do exercises together. The practical intention is to get the voice, body and mind ready for the performance, but it serves as a way of focusing nervous energy into a direction of excitement. The preparation lays the foundation and the mindset controls the event.
Although anxiety is rarely enjoyable or comfortable, it can be a positive motivator. If there is an event far enough in the future, it can motivate people to work harder to avoid potential negative outcomes and prepare more thoroughly. In the short term, however, it seems more advantages, and clearly more enjoyable, to choose excitement (when you can) over nervousness.
So the next time you are nervous about a game, test, event, or performance – tell yourself “I am excited!” The worst case scenario: nothing happens and you’re still nervous… anything else is all positive!