Performance anxiety is better helped by telling yourself to get excited rather than to calm down, says a psychologist publishing the results of experiments looking into fear-inducing prospects, such as public speaking and math tests.

Simply saying the phrase, "I am excited" out loud was found to improve performance in the studies by Alison Wood Brooks, PhD, of Harvard Business School.

The research projects, all printed in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, examined performance in the following different areas of performance:

  • Study 1, singing - 113 mixed university students performed a karaoke song on a Nintendo Wii video game console, using the "Karaoke Revolution: Glee" program
  • Study 2, public speaking - 140 students were given 2 minutes to prepare a persuasive public speech about "why you are a good work partner"
  • Study 3, math - 188 students were asked to complete a difficult math task under time pressure.

A fourth study then sought to explain why, in all three of these studies, simply reappraising anxiety as excitement before a performance improved the results.

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In the public speaking test, Dr. Brooks, who holds an assistant professorship in business administration at Harvard, increased anxiety by telling the students that a researcher would video their persuasive public speech on being a good work colleague. Also, the results were to be judged by a committee.

Before delivering the speech, participants were instructed to say, depending on the group they were assigned to, "I am excited" or "I am calm."

The subjects who used the excitement technique gave longer speeches and were more persuasive, competent and relaxed.

The ratings were made by independent evaluators, and in addition to comparison with the "I am calm" technique, there was a control group assigned to neither psychological intervention.

Dr. Brooks says:

"The way we talk about our feelings has a strong influence on how we actually feel."

Why did it work better than trying to calm down?

The fear of performance is a "state of arousal" that is closer to the state of excitement than to the state of being calm, as Dr. Brooks explains:

"Since both anxiety and excitement are emotional states characterized by high arousal, it may be easier to view anxiety as excitement rather than trying to calm down to combat performance anxiety."

Before the tests of whether viewing anxiety as an opportunity for excitement was better than trying to calm fears, Dr. Brooks already knew from a pilot study that people tended to believe in the latter approach to contend with performance nerves.

Simply telling yourself the opposite, however, works better. Dr. Brooks continues:

"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."

Anxiety and math

For the experiment involving a difficult math problem to solve, the students in two randomly assigned trial groups tackled it after reading different instructions (a third control group had no statement to read):

  • "Try to get excited," or
  • "Try to remain calm."

Participants in the excited group achieved an average 8% higher score than those in the calm group.

Anxiety and singing

In the controlled trial of karaoke performance, the students were assigned randomly to say that they were one of the following:

  • Anxious
  • Excited
  • Calm
  • Angry
  • Sad.

The students in the control group made no statement. Anxiety levels in all the participants were indicated by heart rate, which was monitored via a pulse meter strapped onto a finger.

The video game's rating system was used as the measure of performance, and the participants who said they were excited scored an average of 80% for pitch, rhythm and volume.

This compared with an average score of 69% for the students in the trial arms saying they were calm, angry or sad, and a score of 53% for the participants instructed to say they were anxious.

The students who merely spoke the words "I am excited" before the karaoke test also reported having an actual feeling of greater excitement and confidence in their singing ability.

In other recent anxiety findings, researchers publishing in Biological Psychiatry in November 2013 found a biological marker that crosses generations to provide one of the possible explanations for stressed mothers transmitting stress patterns to offspring.

There was news in October that an anxiety gene may curb willingness to help others, and in the same month, research suggested cognitive behavioral therapy was 'effective' for health anxiety.