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How to Reframe Anxiety and Boost Productivity

It's not about staying calm. In fact, it's the complete opposite.

Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash

When was the last time you were anxious?

Maybe you got worked up over a big presentation. Or preparing for that meeting to ask for a pay raise. Or getting ready to text that guy or girl you especially clicked with recently. Or more recently, going grocery shopping. Or leaving the house.

When encountering such situations, we often prepare by telling ourselves to relax or to calm down.

Turns out, that may be precisely the wrong thing to do.

At least according to recent research by Alison Wood Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School. Brooks recently studied a phenomenon known as “anxiety reappraisal.” In essence, anxiety reappraisal involves trying to turn the feeling of anxiety into something positive.

Instead of trying to calm yourself down when you’re anxious, says Brooks, you should try saying the following three words:

I am excited.

THE RESEARCH

To prove the benefit of this short phrase, Brooks performed a series of experiments. After gathering participants, she presented a series of tasks including singing karaoke, speaking in public, and completing a difficult math task under time pressure.

Olga Khazan of The Atlantic recently reported on the study and its results:

The participants were then told to either say “I am anxious,” “I am excited,” or nothing before they broke into song. The “excited” participants not only felt more excited…they also sang better, according to a computerized measurement of volume and pitch. Their on-and-on-and-ons were just more, well, on–perhaps because the participants themselves were.

The same was true of a speech test. When asked to give a two-minute speech on camera, the excited participants spoke longer and were seen as more persuasive, confident, and persistent. Then came a math test, in which the excited participants similarly outperformed a group that was told to remain calm.

The interesting thing is this method didn’t lower subjects’ heart rates…or even make them less “anxious.” It simply turned that anxiety into something positive: excitement and enthusiasm.

It may sound too simple to be true, but the principle makes sense. As Khazan explains in this video, anxiety reappraisal is meant to get yourself “out of a threat mindset, where you’re focused on all the things that can go wrong, and into an opportunity mindset, where you’re thinking about all the good things that could happen if you do well.”

“It’s much easier to get from anxiety to excitement than it is from anxiety to calm,” says Khazan.

I’ve experienced similar results myself, albeit unintentionally. Whenever I have a big meeting or a major speech to give, I spend the last few minutes before going in reviewing major points that I strongly believe in.

Sometimes I have these written down, sometimes it’s all in my head–but the idea is the same: I want to reaffirm why I’m doing this in the first place, and to get myself focused on the task at hand…rather than on myself and how I’m feeling.

It works.

PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE

So the next time you’re anxious about an upcoming task or event, don’t worry. But don’t try to calm down, either.

Just get excited.

Because that enthusiasm is more valuable than you think.

Enjoy this post? Check out my new book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.

A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.

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