We all have our way of responding to anxiety. I tend to let it build, obsessing over whatever is causing me stress, until I have some sort of minor breakdown. After that I will confront the issue, resolve it and forget it ever happened. It’s a pattern my close friends and family have come to know well, a bewildering game of panic and patience.
Tobias has written about his own approach to anxiety, specifically his first experience with panic attacks. His way of dealing is to laugh at himself. He sort of tricks his brain and body by responding to anxiety with an opposite emotion. Compared to my long and exhausting routine, this strategy seems too simple. A study I recently read about, though, suggests it’s an effective way of dealing with stress. The study found that we can actually turn our anxiety into positivity – even excitement – by simply telling our brain how to feel.
Here’s how it went: In 2011, Alison Brooks of the University of Pennsylvania put participants into stressful situations (singing karaoke to strangers, taking a timed IQ test, speaking in public) and asked them to repeat one of three statements to themselves first: “I feel anxious,” “I feel calm,” or “I feel excited.” She then measured their heart rate and performance while they completed the stressful task. The result: People who said “I feel excited” felt more confident and actually performed better than those who said “I feel anxious.” The phrase “I feel calm” had no effect.
Here’s why: Psychologist Ian Robertson explains that, as shown in another, older study, our emotions change based on their context. So in this case, repeating “I feel excited” changed the context of the situation. Saying this phrase made people approach their stressful task as a challenge rather than a threat. And because anxiety shares similar symptoms with excitement (higher pulse, flushed face, unsettled stomach, etc.), it’s not too far a jump from one of these emotions to the other. Feeling calm, however, is more of a stretch.
"We can influence our emotions by choosing a different response."
It’s not quite like laughing at yourself, but the idea relates. We can influence our emotions by choosing a different response. If we look at a daunting task or stressful situation as a challenge instead of a threat, we can potentially change the outcome for the better. We can reroute anxiety to something more productive simply by telling ourselves we feel differently.
I've tried it, admittedly with less intention than exercised in the described study. Countless times I've told bosses, clients or coworkers some version of "I feel excited" because it's what they need or expect to hear. Sometimes I mean it sincerely. Other times it's anything but true. But saying the words aloud seems to seal the deal, at least in the moment. It almost forces me to embrace a mindset I've verbally committed to. Speaking positively about a negative situation stirs up some small bit of confidence or courage that stress might have otherwise stamped out.
Of course, there are stressful situations in which we can’t just flip the switch and decide we’re not anxious. In some cases, anxiety can be a good thing. It can protect us or make us more sensitive when we need to be. It's a natural human emotion, one we can’t always wish away by chanting a magical phrase, however much we'd like to. Or maybe we don't want to — perhaps anxiety is the necessary factor in motivating us to make change.
But in most cases, at least in my experience, we'd serve ourselves better to channel our anxiety into productivity. Maybe that means freaking out real quick first and then getting to work. Maybe it means laughing at ourselves more. Maybe it’s as simple as saying we're excited until we convince ourselves we are. Maybe you should consult a qualified psychologist on the matter since I'm clearly not one.