Feeling Anxious or Stressed? Get Excited!

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Image credit: Ryan McGuire

“Fake it till you make it” isn’t usually welcome advice for people dealing with mental health issues. Yes, smiling may improve your mood. When you’re deep in the throes of depression, however, being told to smile more can seem dismissive at best.

Similarly, telling someone in the midst of a panic attack that they should reframe their anxiety as excitement probably won’t do much good (please, tell me again how excited I should be while I feel like I can’t breathe).

The most intuitive solution to anxiety is to relax. Take deep, calming breaths–it will often help, since diaphragmatic breathing is a great way to calm down. But what do you do when being calm is an impossible goal because the event that’s making you anxious is looming? You might want to get excited instead–it may actually feel better and have better results than calming down.

The Atlantic explored that counterintuitive advice this week with the help of Alison Wood Brooks, a Harvard Business School professor whose 2014 study on anxiety has made headlines ever since.

As Brooks explains, categorizing your symptoms as anxiety or excitement can be a self-fulfilling exercise.

That’s because anxiety and excitement are both aroused emotions. In both, the heart beats faster, cortisol surges, and the body prepares for action. In other words, they’re “arousal congruent.” The only difference is that excitement is a positive emotion‚ focused on all the ways something could go well.

Calmness is also positive, meanwhile, but it’s also low on arousal. For most people, it takes less effort for the brain to jump from charged-up, negative feelings to charged-up, positive ones, Brooks said, than it would to get from charged-up and negative to positive and chill. In other words, its easier to convince yourself to be excited than calm when you’re anxious.

 

When your heart is being quickly and you feel a little out of control, it often feels like something must be wrong–particularly if you’re used to associating that feeling with anxiety already. If you dig down into that feeling, you could well turn something that should be exciting into an anxiety-filled experience. Far better to try the opposite, if you can.

Brooks’ study specifically looked at pre-performance anxiety. Ahead of an anxiety-inducing event like public speaking or karaoke singing, some participants were asked to reappraise their anxiety as excitement, doing simple things like saying “I am excited” out loud. Those that did were more likely to consider the upcoming event an opportunity instead of a threat, and their performances generally improved.

Psychologist Kelly McGonigal covered similar territory in her 2013 TED talk. Her focus was on stress, and how it too can be reframed as a positive in order to build resilience and turn negative health outcomes around.

Perspective is a major part of building resilience to stressful situations, whether you try to view situations as exciting, nurture a positive self-image, or look at crises with hope instead of despair.

So if there’s a stressful event in the future and you’re already starting to get those first stirrings of anxiety, you might want to try getting hyped instead.