Why Keeping Calm May Not Help You Carry On

New research found that perking yourself up before a big presentation or speech may be more helpful in calming anxiety than trying to relax.

When people feel anxious and try to calm down, they are thinking about all the things that could go badly. When they are excited, they are thinking about how things could go well.

Nervous about the big meeting? Dreading the presentation you’re giving at that upcoming conference?

Pre-performance anxiety can be crippling. Its effects have been felt by the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Gandhi, and Cicero.

Whether you’re giving a speech, making a presentation in front of the board, or leading a meeting, if you’re feeling anxious, one of the most common pieces of advice is to relax.

But what if instead of trying to calm yourself down, you convinced yourself to get excited? New research published last month by the American Psychological Association found that getting excited is more effective at lowering anxiety than trying to relax.

“People have a very strong intuition that trying to calm down is the best way to cope with their anxiety, but that can be very difficult and ineffective,” study author Alison Wood Brooks, Ph.D., of Harvard Business School, said in a statement. “When people feel anxious and try to calm down, they are thinking about all the things that could go badly. When they are excited, they are thinking about how things could go well.”

In one experiment in Brooks’ study, nearly 200 men and women were given difficult math problems to solve after reading the statements “try to get excited” or “try to remain calm,” or no statement at all. Those who read the excited statement scored 8 percent higher than the other two groups and reported higher confidence in their math skills after solving the problems.

In another experiment, 140 study participants were asked to prepare a public speech that would be video recorded and were told their speeches would be judged by a committee. Before delivering their speeches, participants were asked to say “I am excited” or “I am calm.”  As you might guess, independent evaluators rated the excited group as more competent, relaxed, and persuasive overall.

“When you feel anxious, you’re ruminating too much and focusing on potential threats,” Brooks said. “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.”

If convincing yourself to be excited before a presentation doesn’t sound like a helpful method to soothe anxiety, you could try one of these tips from Bryan Kelly, host of and marketing director at Aptify, who shared “6 Secrets of Successful Public Speakers” [ASAE member login required]:

  • Be a leader. “When you’re the presenter, you’re given authority,” Kelly wrote. “The audience wants and expects you to lead them. What you do next is vital so you don’t lose their allegiance. Become a leader from the start and own it.”
  • Be aware of your body movement, he adivsed. “Knowing how to stand, move, gesture, and deal with nervousness conveys leadership, passion, and openness.”
  • The way you say something, or tone of voice, is just as important as what you are saying, Kelly wrote. “Great speakers have long utilized this secret to engage audiences through volume, modulation, articulation, and well-placed pauses.”

Have any tips for overcoming pre-performance anxiety? Let us know in the comments.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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