Pounding heart, rapid breath, racing thoughts—is it anxiety or excitement? New studies at Harvard University found that by interpreting these sensations as excitement instead of anxiety, people performed better in three types of stressful situations: singing in front of strangers, speaking in public and solving difficult math problems.
In the experiments, some participants were told to either try to calm down or try to get excited before the task; others were given no such instructions. People who viewed their anxious arousal as excitement not only reported feeling more excited, they also performed better on all tasks than the other participants: their singing was about 30 percent more accurate, their scores on several dimensions of public speaking were approximately 20 percent higher, and their performance on a timed math test was about 15 percent better, according to the paper, which ran in the Journal of Experimental Psychology last June. Another Harvard study, published in Emotion in August 2014, also found performance-boosting effects for people with social anxiety who thought of their stress as being helpful during a public performance.
Most people try to calm down when facing high-stakes situations, but that approach backfires by increasing rumination about what could go wrong. Instead choose to focus on the potential high points of the scenario—for instance, look forward to making colleagues laugh during a presentation or knowing how to solve some problems on a test. “Getting excited about how things can go well will give you confidence and energy and increase the likelihood that the positive outcomes you imagine will actually happen,” says Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and author of the June paper.