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Work with anxiety' rather than seek calm to improve performance

Jan 3rd 2014 at 9:17 PM

Performance anxiety is better helped by telling yourself to get excited rather than to calm down, says a psychologist publishing the results of experiments looking into fear-inducing prospects, such as public speaking and math tests. Simply saying the phrase, "I am excited" out loud was found to improve performance in the studies by Alison Wood Brooks, PhD, of Harvard Business School.

The research projects, all printed in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, examined performance in the following different areas of performance: Study 1, singing - 113 mixed university students performed a karaoke song on a Nintendo Wii video game console, using the "Karaoke Revolution: Glee" program Study 2, public speaking - 140 students were given 2 minutes to prepare a persuasive public speech about "why you are a good work partner"

Study 3, math - 188 students were asked to complete a difficult math task under time pressure. A fourth study then sought to explain why, in all three of these studies, simply reappraising anxiety as excitement before a performance improved the results. Thumbs up The latest research suggests telling yourself 'I'm excited,' rather than 'I am calm' before embarking on an anxiety-inducing endeavor. In the public speaking test,

Dr. Brooks, who holds an assistant professorship in business administration at Harvard, increased anxiety by telling the students that a researcher would video their persuasive public speech on being a good work colleague. Also, the results were to be judged by a committee. Before delivering the speech, participants were instructed to say, depending on the group they were assigned to, "I am excited" or "I am calm." The subjects who used the excitement technique gave longer speeches and were more persuasive, competent and relaxed. The ratings were made by independent evaluators, and in addition to comparison with the "I am calm" technique, there was a control group assigned to neither psychological intervention. Dr. Brooks says: "

The way we talk about our feelings has a strong influence on how we actually feel." Why did it work better than trying to calm down? The fear of performance is a "state of arousal" that is closer to the state of excitement than to the state of being calm, as Dr. Brooks explains: "Since both anxiety and excitement are emotional states characterized by high arousal, it may be easier to view anxiety as excitement rather than trying to calm down to combat performance anxiety." Before the tests of whether viewing anxiety as an opportunity for excitement was better than trying to calm fears, Dr. Brooks already knew from a pilot study that people tended to believe in the latter approach to contend with performance nerves.

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