Get Excited For A Fast, Free, and Surprisingly Effective Antidote to Pre-Performance Anxiety

Get Excited For A Fast, Free, and Surprisingly Effective Antidote to Pre-Performance Anxiety

Our bodies are talking to us all of the time. Often it is in a gentle voice, one polite enough not to demand immediate attention or distract our busy prefrontal cortex from going about its day looking at our experiences through the lenses of logic, reasoning, empathy and all of the other skills that make us uniquely human.

Then there is the overpowering, dominating and relentless voice of anxiety.

This piercing voice quickly overtakes those higher, more developed parts of our brain and unapologetically steals all of our cognitive resources. Anxiety occurs when our body senses that we may be in danger, and it is the voice that tells us subconsciously to prepare to run, fight or freeze. Our body tells us this through a diverse set of physiological changes including increased heart rate, rapid or irregular breathing, trembling, sweating and that nagging feeling of butterflies in your stomach.

If you are a performer like me, you are probably intimately familiar with those symptoms and that voice. In fact, you might just call those bodily sensations and spiraling thought patterns that accompany them “pre show jitters”. In the research world, we call this well worn phenomenon pre-performance anxiety.

You might dream of one day having the power to banish this obnoxious voice forever, but surprisingly when it comes to peak performance, that may not serve you as well as you think. Although it is true that experiencing feelings of anxiety before or during a task lessens working memory capacity, decreases self confidence and harms performance, there is another more hopeful side to this state. What elite performers know to do (consciously and sometimes unconsciously) is to harness this message from their body and use it to their advantage. One way to achieve this is through a remarkably simple and well researched process we can refer to as
anxiety reappraisal.

Reappraising negative emotions (as opposed to suppressing) them is supported by a substantial set of literature and experts on the topic. But reappraisal can go in a lot of different directions, and according to studies conducted by Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School, most people’s go-to instruction for the way to remedy anxiety is much more difficult than it needs to be! When asked about the best advice they would give someone who is struggling with pre-performance anxiety, over 90% of people chose the advice, ‘try to relax and calm down’.

Reappraising anxiety as calmness may seem like sound advice, but it is actually a lot of effort. The better option is to reappraise anxiety as excitement. For our purposes, when anxiety arises pre-performance, we would tell ourselves that we are excited for the experience instead of anxious or nervous about the experience. This cognitive strategy is incredibly effective for a few reasons:

  1. Anxiety and excitement are incredibly similar physiologically. Despite having very different effects on performance, our nervous system is at a similar state of arousal during the experience of both of these emotions. In contrast, when we are in a calm state, our nervous system is much more down regulated. This makes shifting from anxiety to excitement much easier and more efficient than shifting from anxiety all the way down to calm because we are working with the nervous system instead of against it. This is why we can refer to anxiety and excitement as arousal congruent emotions. Often, arousal congruent emotions can be moved in between just by relabeling these experiences in the mind.
  2. We need to retain a healthy level of autonomic arousal to perform at our best. This means that trying to down regulate to a state of calm before performance is actually not as productive as we think. Very low or high levels of anxiety are not ideal for performing our best. By reappraising anxiety as excitement, we are able to find the “sweet spot”. Our nervous system is aroused enough that we are alert, ready to mobilize, and motivated to perform our best, but not so aroused that our working memory plummets and the higher thinking portions of our brain are taken offline.
  3. We are able to migrate from a threat mindset to an opportunity mindset. As we have discussed already, when we are in an anxiety state, our body believes that we are in immediate danger and we adopt a threat mindset. In a threat mindset, we are consciously and unconsciously spending our cognitive energy evaluating everything that could go wrong in the upcoming performance. When we are able to relabel anxiety as excitement, we allow ourselves to move into an opportunity mindset. In this mindset, we focus on the potential positive outcomes of the performance. We can allow stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to help us perform our best instead of acting on the defensive. This gets our brain working for us instead of against us. 

Effective reappraisal can happen through simple strategies such as self-talk, writing about the excitement of the upcoming experience, and communicating out loud to other people how excited you are feeling about a performance when asked. To be clear, anxiety reappraisal is not about suppressing anxiety or betraying your emotions as it may seem at first glance, but about working with your natural physiological response to reframe the upcoming experience in a positive light because whatever you tell yourself, your subconscious mind will believe you and work to make it so

So the next time that deafening voice of anxiety creeps in pre-performance, try saying ‘I am excited to see you’ and notice how your mind and body shift to working in your favor!

 

Emily Harmon is a voice coach, meditation & functional breathing instructor, and wellness specialist.

* Important note: anxiety reappraisal is most effective for those experiencing state anxiety as opposed to trait anxiety which is a more chronic condition and should be treated in partnership with mental health professionals.

References:
Brooks, A. W. (2014). Get excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(3), 1144–1158. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035325

Khazan, O. (2016, March 23). One simple phrase that turns anxiety into success. The Atlantic. Retrieved September 2, 2022, from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/03/can-three-words-turn-anxiety-into-success/474909/

Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2018, May 4). Anxiety disorders. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved September 2, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961

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