Is calming down really the best way to achieve peak performance? Alison Wood Brooks, Ph.D. doesn’t think so:
Individuals often feel anxious in anticipation of tasks such as speaking in public or meeting with a boss. I find that an overwhelming majority of people believe trying to calm down is the best way to cope with pre-performance anxiety. However, across several studies involving karaoke singing, public speaking, and math performance, I investigate an alternative strategy: reappraising anxiety as excitement.
The studies Brooks refers to suggest that getting excited rather than relaxed is a more effective way to reduce performance anxiety. In one experiment that many high school students can relate to, 188 participants were given difficult math problems after they read “try to get excited” or “try to remain calm.” As a comparison, a control group didn’t read any statement.
Participants in the excited group scored 8 percent higher on average than the calm group and the control group and also reported feeling more confident about their math skills after the test. Why and how does this work?
Compared with those who attempt to calm down, individuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement feel more excited and perform better. Individuals can reappraise anxiety as excitement using minimal strategies such as self-talk (e.g., saying “I am excited” out loud) or simple messages (e.g., “get excited”), which lead them to feel more excited, adopt an opportunity mind-set (as opposed to a threat mind-set), and improve their subsequent performance.
Keeping cool under pressure has its benefits, but while heading into big tests, students should do their best to get excited–but definitely not anxious–about the opportunity ahead of them. After all, peak performance is worth getting excited about!
If you are interested in Alison Wood Brooks’s research, I recommend downloading her paper, Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement, from the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.