One of the cruelest ironies of anxiety is that it severely inhibits our “higher order” thinking processes – our ability to analyze and empathize, to think creatively, to exercise optimism.
So when we’re doing things that make us nervous – like giving a presentation, having a difficult conversation, or interviewing for a job – anxiety takes away the exact abilities that will help us succeed. Why does it do this? Our stress response system evolved to deal with immediate threats, like stalking tigers in the jungle. In that situation, it worked perfectly well to limit higher order thinking: You don’t negotiate or empathize with tigers. You don’t need to think outside the box: fight, flight or freeze are the only good options. But in today’s world, those higher order thinking skills are the exact skills needed to deal with the stressors that most commonly arise.
So what can we do about this? Here are 2 simple and effective strategies to overcome anxiety with emotional intelligence.
STEP #1: TELL YOURSELF HOW YOU FEEL
The first is to name your emotions – yes, literally, name them. When I first heard this, I was like, “Name my emotions? You must be confused. I know exactly what I am feeling, and that’s the problem!” But research has shown that labeling emotions lessens the intensity of the feeling by bridging the gap between thoughts and feelings. They tested this at UCLAwith people who are very scared of spiders, and the ones who labeled their fearful emotions out loud showed the least physiological signs of anxiety – like your heart racing, feet tapping involuntarily or palms getting sweaty. Name it to tame it.
So say it loud and proud the next time you are feeling anxious, “I am anxious!” It helps – a lot.
STEP # 2: GIVE YOUR FEELINGS A SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT SPIN
The next step, after you have reduced the power of your nervousness by simply acknowledging it, is to reframe it in a positive way. Instead of trying to calm yourself down by saying things like, “I am not nervous,” you are better off telling yourself, “I am excited!” Trying to do away with the feelings is nearly impossible. Instead, take those same feelings and give them something more positive to work toward.
The effectiveness of this method, known as “anxious reappraisal,” has been shown by Alison Wood Brooks’ research at the Harvard Business School. In her studies, she had participants do some pretty anxiety-inducing tasks, like singing Don’t Stop Believin’ in front of a group, giving speeches on camera, and completing a timed math test. Before completing the tasks, the participants were told to say “I am anxious!”, “I am excited!”, or nothing.
And what did she find?
Remarkably, those who were told to say “I am excited!” performed better on all of the tasks. They sang better, according to a computerized measurement of tone and pitch. They gave speeches that were judged as more persuasive, confident, and persistent. And on the math tests, they outperformed the other two groups. They were the star performers across the board.
But how can this be? Brooks posits that this is because anxiety and excitement are both high arousal emotional states, characterized by a faster heart beat and higher levels of cortisol. So it’s less of a jump from anxiety to excitement than from anxiety to calmness. In fact, the excited group was no less amped up – in terms of heart rate and cortisol levels – than the anxious group. They simply channeled it differently.
It’s a simple, but radical, idea. Instead of swimming against the current of your own emotions, you swim with them, embracing them. You change where you choose to put your focus – from anxiety and what could go wrong to excitement and the opportunity at hand. This is the power of naming and reframing emotions.
When you’re nervous, you should do your best to calm down, right? According to recent research, there is another option: participants who reframed anxiety as excitement performed better on a variety of tes