To Reduce Anxiety: Don’t “Keep Calm and Carry On”
The re-emergence of the popular English WWII slogan has brought with it a slew of merchandise and parodies. “Keep Calm and Carry On” has such simplicity and matter-of-fact-ness. What better words of reassurance could possibly be given to a person – or at the time, a nation – in distress? According to a Harvard Business Professor, the answer may not be as simple as initially thought.
Professor Alison Brooks finds that better results are achieved using an alternative strategy called “anxiety reappraisal”. When a person is told to calm down, what they are actually trying to accomplish is to reverse the effects of arousal. When aroused, the heart rate goes up, cortisol levels go up, and the body is placed on ‘high alert’. To try and reverse those effects is difficult. It is much easier to reinterpret this arousal to excitement – another emotion that is similar in its biochemical effects on the body. To test this, she placed subjects in different anxiety inducing situations – karaoke singing, public speaking, math performance. She then measured their performances in these tasks by having the subjects say either “I am nervous” or “I am excited” before performing each task. Results were overwhelmingly better when the subjects appraised their arousal in a positive frame of mind, rather than negative.
So what are the takeaways? First, there’s another study to show how powerful the effects of positive thinking can be. In this case, though, you might not have to actually believe that you aren’t nervous. Simply saying “I am excited” appears to have the ability to positively channel the biochemical changes traditionally associated with anxiety. The other thing to consider is that you may not actually be nervous in all the situations that you think you are. Try framing nerve-wracking situations you face in a different way. Choose to take control of your experience by declaring your excitement for the experience and you will perform better.