“Stay calm.” “Stay energized.” When you’re preparing for a major event—a performance or competition—which is it? What should you do?

Here’s more advice: “Got Stage Fright? Get Excited!” proclaims the headline at HealthDay. The article goes on to describe research which concluded that if you’ve got pre-performance anxiety, it’s better to get excited than to calm down. Since I’m in the business of helping people handle pre-performance anxiety, I was curious and wanted to find out more.

Is it either/or—excitement or calming? Or maybe it’s better to do one and then the other? Does it depend on the person? And what is meant by getting excited or calming down, anyway?

You may have seen reference to this recent research, conducted by Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. My curiosity was piqued, so I read Professor Brooks’ article itself.

The article describes a pilot study as well as four experiments that she conducted. Here are my take-aways from her research:

• When you ask people what their best advice would be about how to handle pre-performance anxiety, the vast majority think that you should try to relax and calm down.

• In situations where people might be expected to be anxious—singing before strangers, public speaking, solving math problems—those who either said to themselves “I am excited” or told themselves “Get excited” reported that they felt more excited and performed more effectively.

These are pretty minimal interventions and pretty easy for any of us to do. To have such a powerful effect is truly impressive.

So what is going on? Dr. Brooks suggests that it’s a matter of “arousal congruency”—that in fact there’s a lot of physiological similarity between the way that we experience anxiety and the way that we experience excitement. “Re-appraising” that level of arousal and giving it a different name allows a cascade of positive effects. When you use “excitement” rather than “anxiety”, you feel more self-efficacy (belief in your ability to perform the task) and experience the performance situation as a challenge rather than a threat.

In contrast, what happens if you re-appraise anxiety as calmness? Telling yourself that you’re calm or telling yourself to calm down can be really problematic: it may increase your focus on how tense you are. Or it may be experienced as dismissive, minimizing or discounting what you’re actually feeling. Under those circumstances, performance is likely to be negatively affected.

I totally agree that re-labeling in a way that doesn’t fit our physiological experience and doesn’t get us to change our perception of what is going on is no help at all.


What happens if we actually do calm down—at least somewhat? We humans are biopsychosocial beings. It’s not as if our heads are separate from our bodies. If we’re at a very high level of tension, calming down—so that we can focus, so that we can re-frame what our experience is and give it a different, positive label—may be the best solution of all. Note: this does not mean becoming totally relaxed. For most kinds of performance, total relaxation will also move you out of focus and motivation. It’s a matter of finding your particular “sweet spot.”

Look back at those phrases I started with: Stay calm. Stay energized. Is it either or? Jen Heil, an Olympic gold medalist, described her pre-performance experience in a recent radio interview. What she actually said was: “Stay calm. Stay energized.” Not an either/or but a both/and. A way of being aware enough of yourself and making those mental and physical adjustments—your thoughts and feelings and their physiological correlates—so that you can, at the moment of performance, just be fully in the moment, doing the performance.

How do you go about calming down? If you’ve been following my blog, you know that my favorite method is through diaphragmatic breathing. (And if you’ve not been following my blog, I invite you to check out the various entries I’ve made on the subject: Part I, Part II, and Part III.)

Or here’s a different approach: Just notice what’s going on, both in your thoughts and in your body. It’s the essence of mindfulness—a focused awareness without judgment. In that sense, “anxious” or “excited” become merely labels that we attach to our experience. Remove the label, and pay attention to your performing self.

What’s your best strategy—or set of strategies—pre-performance? Learn from research, from skilled performance consultants, and from your own inquiry and self-observation: That’s another way to get excited!

As always, if you have questions or comments, feel free to contact me through my website: www.theperformingedge.com.


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