February 22-28

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The Case Against Staying Calm

How to turn your anxiety into excitement

Among other differences between the sexes, Freud proffered that women are emotional while men are rational, and indeed the perception, at least, has seemed to endure, both at work and at home. Female bosses are typically expected to be more reactive, more likely to experience anxiety, and feel more pressure to succeed than their male counterparts, and it's likely many women buy in to this perception as well: A 2012 study conducted by researchers at the University of Montreal, for example, found that women feel more anxious than men when hearing negative news reports.

At home, well, few and far between is the husband who hasn't at least once suggested his wife "relax," encouraged, perhaps, by such studies as the recent one out of the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology that concluded the happiest marriages were the ones in which the wives were able to calm down quickly after conflict (though try telling that to your wife the next time the discussion gets a bit heated). But as perhaps anyone who's had someone tell them to "calm down" can attest, cooling down, chilling out, or otherwise relaxing on command is just not simple (nor, for the person doing the suggestions, entirely wise). It also might not be preferable.

Staying cool and collected is by most accounts a goal people of both genders strive towards as a way to get through situations rife with anger, anxiety, or tension—just look at the booming meditation, and medication, economies. The resurrected and newly trendy WWII-era British propaganda expression "Keep Calm and Carry On" promotes the idea of staying cool under pressure, while Seinfeld made the "Serenity Now" mantra into a short term solution, at least, for over-excitable Frank Costanza, who especially liked to use it when arguing with his wife, Estelle.

But a recent study has found that staying calm isn't necessarily the preferred way to be. In a study of more than 400 participants, researchers at Harvard Business School found that when people tell themselves to get excited in situations in which they are otherwise inclined to feel anxious—speaking in public, doing math problems, singing karaoke—they perform better than when they try to calm down. In one situation, 63 men and 77 women were asked to deliver a talk to an audience, and told their speeches would be videotaped and judged. Those who repeated to themselves, "I am excited," before giving the speech gave longer speeches and were more persuasive, competent, and relaxed than those who were instructed to tell themselves, "I am calm." This happened again and again. The takeaway, say researchers, is that the way we talk about our feelings has a strong influence on how we actually feel.

What's more, worried people are pessimistic people, at least in the moment, focusing their thought on what could or will go wrong. Reframing the thought to the more positive, "I'm excited" works to inspire hope by helping people come up with, and take action toward, solutions that could actually work. There's also the fact that a large part of anxiety is an automatic physical response—in the form of increased heart rate, release of stress hormones, sweat. Without medication, at least, it's nearly impossible to talk your nervous system out of whatever it's wont to do. And so when you can't, you fret even more.

How to do it: The next time you feel nervous or anxious, worked up about a big presentation or your husband's forgetfulness, instead of willing yourself to calm down, try telling yourself to get jazzed instead. That you're excited to speak to an audience of 5,000, or to talk with your husband about how it makes you feel when he leaves all the childcare responsibilities to you. You're not dreading the talk; you're excited for the opportunity: to further your career, to better your marriage. Emphasize excitement over composure. You'll not only perform better, but feel better, too. As even the Costanzas eventually found out: "Serenity now" is likely to lead to "insanity later."

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com