An Unexpected Way to Deal with Performance Anxiety

Activities such as exams or public speaking can turn the toughest into a sweaty, shaky human shaped jelly in a skin suit. The obvious response to performance anxiety is to try to relax, but it might not be the most effective, according to new research.

The problem with naming that racey heart, butterflies-in-the-belly, anxious feeling as ‘feeling anxious’, is that it tends to trigger thoughts of all the things that could go badly. Getting excited on the other hand brings on a more positive emotional state.

Research conducted at Harvard University showed that relabelling ‘anxiety’ as ‘excitement’ improved performance during anxiety-inducing activities.

What They Did & What They Found

Study 1: Public Speaking

Participants were required to prepare a public speech about why they would be good work partners. Before they delivered the speech, participants were asked to say, ‘I am excited,’ or ‘I am calm.’

According to independent evaluators, those who said they were excited gave speeches that were more persuasive, competent and relaxed than those who said they were calm.

Study 2: Maths Test

Participants were divided into three groups. One group were instructed, ‘try to get excited’; the second, ‘try to remain calm’; and the third, nothing. Each participant was then given a difficult maths test.

Participants in the excited group performed 8% better on average than participants in the other two groups.

Still not convinced? That’s alright – because there was a third study …

Study 3: Karaoke

Participants were randomly assigned to say they were anxious, excited, calm, angry or sad before blasting out a tune on karaoke. A control group did not have to make any statement.

Participants in the excited group scored 80% on average. Those in the calm, angry or sad groups scored on average 69%. Those who said they were anxious scored 53%.

Here’s how it works.

Reinterpreting feelings is extremely powerful. Anxiety and excitement are similar in many ways. Both are characterised by high arousal and other physiological experiences – sweating, butterflies, racey heart.

Labelling a feeling as ‘anxiety’ sets up thoughts of everything that could go wrong. Relabelling the feeling as ‘excited’ brings to mind more positive, productive thoughts of what might be.

As explained by researcher Alison Wood, PhD of Harvard Business School, ‘When you feel anxious, you’re ruminating too much and focusing on potential threats. In those circumstances, people should try to focus on the potential opportunities. It really does pay to be positive, and people should say they are excited. Even if they don’t believe it at first, saying ‘I’m excited’ out loud increases authentic feelings of excitement.’

[irp posts=”1359″ name=”The Proven Way to Feel Less Anxious, More Confident & More Empowered in Two Minutes”]

6 Comments

Kim

This is so interesting… my 8 year old struggled with anxiety and has low processing speed index scores meaning he struggles in testing situations. This year he’s become involved in performing and he loves being on stage, he talks about how he gets nervous beforehand but loves it once he’s up there… never thought of using this to help him in testing situations as he talks about being nervous before those but I’ll definitely give that a try now!

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mh support network

Having read this I thought it was extremely enlightening.

I appreciate you spending some time and effort to
put this article together. I once again find myself spending a lot
of time both reading and posting comments. But so what, it was still worth it!

Reply
Elizabeth

I never knew the feeling of anxiety. I have heard the word several times but one day at age 28, when I went to the Dr he asked me if what I was feeling was anxiety. And I just did not know what anxiety felt like. He had to explained me several times what it felt like. My mother was extremely busy managing a business and raising all by herself seven children since my father abandoned her. She was a wonderful mother but never talked about it to me. I never had a chance to think, or be aware of my feelings when growing up. Now at age 48. I am aware of anxiety but thanks goodness I do not suffer from it that much. It is good that you talk to your kids about it.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

That must have been a frightening experience having the feelings of anxiety and not knowing where they are coming from. Thankfully we are learning more and more about it. Hopefully this means our kids will be more empowered from the information we have access to now.

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Debi

OhMYgoodness! I have spent the last 90 minutes on your website…. having a daughter with anxiety, I am always trying to “fix” it. This one article has changed the way I talk to her, starting tomorrow. It occurred to me while reading this, that I use the word ANXIETY way too frequently. To the point she says “its NOT anxiety, Mom!!”. uggggh…. just labeling her and saying the word so often is not helping!! Anyway, your articles speak to the deepest places of my heart ache. I feel so hopeful now that I have found your site. Thank you for sharing your knowledge…. its like a life preserver in the ocean!!!

Reply
heysigmund

Your’re welcome! I’m so pleased the information has helped you and I’m so pleased you’ve found Hey Sigmund. I love how you’ve made the connections so quickly. One of the things that’s so hard about being a is having to guess whether we’re doing the right thing or whether we should try something else. And then we’ll second guess ourselves as to whether we guessed right or wrong. Geez! It’s so normal to jump into wanting to ‘fix’ our kids – anything to stop them hurting. You’re not alone there! I’m so pleased you have the information now. I can see that you’re doing pretty great things with it already.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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