Most people equate feeling anxious or nervous with something bad, or it’s a signal you’re not prepared or mentally tough enough. But you can learn to embrace anxiety and use it to your advantage to improve your performance. Everyone has experienced the feeling of anxiety before—whether it’s getting ready to head out on a new mission, bringing a child home from the hospital, or simply having to start a difficult conversation. It probably got in your way of being effective too.
In high-stakes situations where performance matters, the emotions and feelings in your body that go along with anxiety are common. Your heart beats faster, you might feel sweaty, and your stomach can feel uneasy. Even though these are signs your body is preparing you to be at your best, this nervousness can feel unpleasant, and your emotions and physical senses of anxiety often become a source of stress.
Take the example of having to give an important brief to a commander. As you’re getting ready to speak, you might notice you’re feeling anxious, and you might say to yourself, “I feel like this because I don’t have my act together” or “I’m sweating because I can’t handle this.” Interpreting what’s happening in your body as something negative then makes you even more likely to continue thinking negatively about yourself and your ability to manage the situation. And then that in turn reinforces your anxious feelings and fuels more of those uncomfortable physical sensations.
Why can’t you just relax?
There are some strategies you can learn to help bring relief from stress. For example, tactical breathing can help you balance out your fight-or-flight stress response, calm down, and feel more in control. However, research shows there are times when trying to calm down can negatively impact your performance. When you’re feeling anxious, it might be difficult—or even impossible—to simply “decide” to feel calmer mentally because it isn’t consistent with what’s happening in your body. And trying to pretend you’re calm (when you know you aren’t) can bring on even more anxiety.
Get excited instead!
How you interpret the physical sensations of anxiety can change how you feel emotionally—including your overall mindset—and ultimately make a difference in how you perform. When you’re feeling really anxious, try instead to reinterpret your anxiety as excitement. Tell yourself the sensations you feel are signals your mind and body are preparing you to meet the challenge ahead, rather than a sign you can’t handle what’s going on.
It’s normal to interpret some physical signs as performance anxiety. But because some of your body’s reactions to excitement—increased heart rate, “butterflies,” etc.—are the same as with anxiety, you actually can make the conscious choice to feel excited when you’re anxious. This doesn’t make your anxiety go away, but it enables you to feel more confident in the moment. Excitement feels good and puts your mind on a different track. When you’re excited, it’s also easier to view challenges as opportunities, not just potential threats.
So when you feel anxious about performing on your Physical Fitness Test, speaking at a spouses’ meeting, or helping your kid prepare for the big game, remember it’s normal to feel anxious. Your mindset about stress and the anxiety in your life will determine whether the anxiety helps you perform your best or gets in your way. Excitement is anxiety’s cousin: Convince yourself to feel excited, and in turn, enjoy a boost in performance.
Beltzer, M. L., Nock, M. K., Peters, B. J., & Jamieson, J. P. (2014). Rethinking butterflies: The affective, physiological, and performance effects of reappraising arousal during social evaluation. Emotion, 14(4), 761–768. doi:10.1037/a0036326
Brooks, A. W. (2014). Get excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(3), 1144–1158. doi:10.1037/a0035325
Jamieson, J. P., Mendes, W. B., & Nock, M. K. (2013). Improving acute stress responses. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(1), 51–56. doi:10.1177/0963721412461500
McGonigal, K. (2015). The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.