Research shows that a few simple emotional tools can help you overcome anxiety and lead to better performance. This is a sequel to my article on naming emotions, Getting Unstuck: The Power of Naming Emotions.
I am out in the lounge before the biggest interview of my life, and I am sort of freaking out. My heart is racing, my foot is tapping involuntarily, and my palms are starting to sweat. I want this to go well so, so badly, but walking in there with a terrified look on my face definitely won’t help my chances. So what can I do?
The common answer is to take a deep breath and calm down – but recent research has cast doubt on the assumption that this is the best strategy. So, what is the best strategy?
Two Simple Steps to Overcome Anxiety
The two steps I recommend to overcome anxiety both seem almost absurdly simple. But they are proven effective, research based methods for reducing anxiety. Simple doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Step #1: Tell yourself how you feel
The first is to name your emotions – yes, literally, name them. When I first heard this, I was like, “Name my emotions? You must be confused. I know exactly what I am feeling, and that’s the problem!” But research has shown that labeling emotions lessens the intensity of the feeling by bridging the gap between thoughts and feelings. They tested this at UCLA with people who are very scared of spiders, and the ones who labeled their fearful emotions out loud showed the least physiological signs of anxiety – like your heart racing, feet tapping involuntarily or palms getting sweaty. Name it to tame it. Sounds like a good start for me, huh?
So say it loud and proud the next time you are feeling anxious, “I am anxious!” It helps – a lot.
Step # 2: Give your feelings a slightly different spin
The next step, after you have reduced the power of your nervousness by simply acknowledging it, is to reframe it in a positive way. Instead of trying to calm yourself down by saying things like, “I am not nervous,” you are better off telling yourself, “I am excited!” Trying to do away with the feelings is nearly impossible. Instead, take those same feelings and give them something more positive to work toward.
The effectiveness of this method, known as “anxious reappraisal,” has been shown by Alison Wood Brooks’ research at the Harvard Business School. In her studies, she had participants do some pretty anxiety-inducing tasks, like singing Don’t Stop Believin’ in front of a group, giving speeches on camera, and completing a timed math test. Before completing the tasks, the participants were told to say “I am anxious!”, “I am excited!”, or nothing.
And what did she find?
Remarkably, those who were told to say “I am excited!” performed better on all of the tasks. They sang better, according to a computerized measurement of tone and pitch. They gave speeches that were judged as more persuasive, confident, and persistent. And on the math tests, they outperformed the other two groups. They were the star performers across the board.
But how can this be? Brooks posits that this is because anxiety and excitement are both high arousal emotional states, characterized by a faster heart beat and higher levels of cortisol. So it’s less of a jump from anxiety to excitement than from anxiety to calmness. In fact, the excited group was no less amped up – in terms of heart rate and cortisol levels – than the anxious group. They simply channeled it differently.
It’s a simple, but radical, idea. Instead of swimming against the current of your own emotions, you swim with them, embracing them. You change where you choose to put your focus – from anxiety and what could go wrong to excitement and the opportunity at hand. This is the power of renaming emotions.
Darren Tay, the 2016 Toastmasters World Champion of Public Speaking, summed up this concept nicely.
Making that energy fly in formation is a matter of using these simple emotional tools, which are available to everyone. Name your emotions, and focus them on the positive.
Check out this article for more on Alison Wood Brooks’ research and watch the video below from The Atlantic.
These Emotional Skills Are Learnable – So Learn Them!
These tips on how to overcome anxiety are part of a larger set of skills known as emotional intelligence, or EQ. They are skills related to our own and others’ emotions: how to recognize, label, and react appropriately to them. They are really underrated in terms of the impact they have on your personal and professional life, with some research showing that up to 47% of performance can be attributed to emotional intelligence. And the crazy part is they are learnable skills. If you want to increase your EQ, you can!
Six Seconds is a nonprofit dedicated to helping people use emotional intelligence to make positive change in their lives. So whether you want to turn anxiety into excitement for better performance, react more mindfully when you are frustrated, or improve your emotional intelligence in general, you can learn the tools you need. Join the community today!