What to Say to Yourself When You’re Feeling Nerves?
Alison Wood Brooks is a researcher at Harvard Business School. She studies the most effective strategy for dealing with acute stress.
First, a little test: Imagine that you need to give a big presentation in front of a bunch of people. Your heart’s been pounding for days at the mere thought of this talk. Palms are sweaty. All that. What should you tell yourself? Should you try to calm down or should you try to feel excited?
When Alison asked that question to hundreds of people, the response was nearly unanimous: 91% said they thought the best advice was to try to calm down. But… That’s not what her research shows.
Get this: Alison brought people into her lab and gave them a super-stressful test: She made them give an impromptu speech—something that has been proven to do a very good job at eliciting a very high level of stress.
(Recall that people are more afraid of public speaking than death (!), leading Seinfeld to quip that “If you have to go a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
So, back to our study. Everyone’s told they have to give a speech. The normal stress response kicks in. She instructs half of them say to themselves, “I am calm.” The other half were instructed to say “I am excited.”
Guess what? The “I am excited!” group way outperformed the group that tried to calm themselves down. Why is that? Because anxiety is what scientists call a “high-arousal state” while being calm is a “low-arousal state.” It’s almost impossible to shift from a high-arousal state of fear/anxiety/etc. immediately into a calm state. It’s like cruising at 80 miles an hour and slamming on the brakes. Not a good idea.
Much wiser to take all that fear energy and simply reframe it as excitement—channeling it into a positive, constructive direction and, effectively, pressing go on the accelerator rather than stop. And, “I am excited!” is a shockingly simple way to make that happen.
So… What do YOU say to yourself when you’re feeling your heart race before a big event? Time to get excited? Try it today.