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.

Reply
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.

Reply
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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Whenever the brain registers threat, it organises the body to fight the danger, flee from it, or hide from it. 

Here’s the rub. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. It also isn’t always obvious. For a strong, powerful, magnificent, protective brain, ‘threat’ might count as anything that comes with even the teeniest potential of making a mistake, failure, humiliation, judgement, shame, separation from important adults, exclusion, unfamiliarity, unpredictability. They’re the things that can make any of us feel vulnerable.

Once the brain registers threat the body will respond. This can drive all sorts of behaviour. Some will be obvious and some won’t be. The responses can be ones that make them bigger (aggression, tantrums) or ones that make them smaller (going quiet or still, shrinking, withdrawing). All are attempts to get the body to safety. None are about misbehaviour, misintent, or disrespect. 

One of the ways bodies stay safe is by hiding, or by getting small. When children are in distress, they might look calm, but unless there is a felt sense of safety, the body will be surging with neurochemicals that make it impossible for that young brain to learn or connect. 

We all have our things that can send us there. These things are different for all of us, and often below our awareness. The responses to these ‘things’ are automatic and instinctive, and we won’t always know what has sent us there. 

We just need to be mindful that sometimes it’s when children seem like no trouble at all that they need our help the most. The signs can include a wilted body, sad or distant eyes, making the body smaller, wriggly bodies, a heavy head. 

It can also look as though they are ignoring you or being quietly defiant. They aren’t - their bodies are trying to keep them safe. A  body in flight or flight can’t hear words as well as it can when it’s calm.

What they need (what all kids need) are big signs of safety from the adult in the room - loving, warm, voices and faces that are communicating clear intent: ‘I’m here, I see you and I’ve got you. You are safe, and you can do this. I’m with you.’♥️
I’d love to invite you to an online webinar:
‘Thriving in a Stressful World: Practical Ways to Help Ourselves and Our Children Feel Secure And Calm’

As we emerge from the pandemic, stressors are heightened, and anxiety is an ever more common experience. We know from research that the important adults in the life of a child or teen have enormous capacity to help their world feel again, and to bring a felt sense of calm and safety to those young ones. This felt sense of security is essential for learning, regulation, and general well-being. 

I’m thrilled to be joining @marc.brackett and Dr Farah Schroder to explore the role of emotion regulation and the function of anxiety in our lives. Participants will learn ways to help express and regulate their own, and their children’s, emotions, even when our world may feel a little scary and stressful. We will also share practical and holistic strategies that can be most effective in fostering well-being for both ourselves and children. 

In this webinar, hosted by @dalailamacenter you will have the opportunity to learn creative, evidence-informed takeaways to help you and the children in your care build resilience and foster a sense of security and calmness. Join us for this 1 ½ hour session, including a dynamic Q&A period.
 
Webinar Details:
Thursday, October 14, 2021
1:30 - 3:00 PM PST
 
Registrants will receive a Zoom link to attend the webinar live, as well as a private link to a recording of the webinar to watch if they cannot join in at the scheduled time.

Register here:
https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/thriving-in-a-stressful-world-a-heart-mind-live-webinar-tickets-170348045590

The link to register is in my story.♥️
So much of what our kids and teens are going through isn’t normal - online school, extended separation from their loved people, lockdowns, masks. Even if what they are going through isn’t ‘normal’, their response will be completely understandable. Not all children will respond the same way if course, but whatever they feel will be understandable, relatable, and ‘normal’. 

Whether they feel anxious, confused, frustrated, angry, or nothing at all, it’s important that their response is normalised. Research has found that children are more likely to struggle with traumatic events if they believe their response isn’t normal. This is because they tend to be more likely to interpret their response as a sign of breakage. 

Try, ‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

Any message you can give them that you can handle all their feelings and all their words will help them feel safer, and their world feel steadier.♥️
We need to change the way we think about discipline. It’s true that traditional ‘discipline’ (separation, shame, consequences/punishment that don’t make sense) might bring compliant children, but what happens when the fear of punishment or separation isn’t there? Or when they learn that the best way to avoid punishment is to keep you out of the loop?

Our greatest parenting ‘tool’ is our use of self - our wisdom, modelling, conversations, but for any of this to have influence we need access to their ‘thinking’ brain - the prefrontal cortex - the part that can learn, think through consequences, plan, make deliberate decisions. During stress this part switches off. It is this way for all of us. None of us are up for lectures or learning (or adorable behaviour) when we’re stressed.

The greatest stress for young brains is a felt sense of separation from their important people. It’s why time-outs, shame, calm down corners/chairs/spaces which insist on separation just don’t work. They create compliance, but a compliant child doesn’t mean a calm child. As long as a child doesn’t feel calm and safe, we have no access to the part of the brain that can learn and be influenced by us.

Behind all behaviour is a need - power,  influence, independence, attention (connection), to belong, sleep - to name a few). The need will be valid. Children are still figuring out the world (aren’t we all) and their way of meeting a need won’t always make sense. Sometimes it will make us furious. (And sometimes because of that we’ll also lose our thinking brains and say or do things that aren’t great.)

So what do we do when they get it wrong? The same thing we hope our people will do when we get things wrong. First, we recognise that the behaviour is not a sign of a bad child or a bad parent, but their best attempt to meet a need with limited available resources. Then we collect them - we calm ourselves so we can bring calm to them. Breathe, be with. Then we connect through validation. Finally, when their bodies are calm and their thinking brain is back, talk about what’s happened, what they can do differently next time, and how they can put things right. Collect, connect, redirect.
Our nervous systems are talking to each other every minute of every day. We will catch what our children are feeling and they will catch ours. We feel their distress, and this can feed their distress. Our capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

Children create their distress in us as a way to recruit support to help them carry the emotional load. It’s how it’s meant to be. Whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection what your children are feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you and in them is relevant. 

You don’t need to fix their feelings. Let their feelings come, so they can go. The healing is in the happening. 

In that moment of big feelings it’s more about who you are than what you do. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there. This will help calm them more than anything. We feel safest when we are ‘with’. Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with - and you don’t need to do more than that. 
There will be a time for teaching, learning, redirecting, but the middle of a storm is not that time.♥️

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