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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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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