Relaxing Away Performance Anxiety Can Actually Backfire, Study Suggests

Nervous before a big interview? Or a major exam or speech? Well, whatever you do, don’t calm down. Because new research finds that people who try to relax away their performance anxiety actually mess up more than folks who just give in to the excitement. The study is in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. [Alison Wood Brooks, Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement]

We all grapple with nerves when we face some test of our abilities. To find out how the impulse to banish the butterflies works out, Allison Wood Brooks of the Harvard Business School turned to karaoke. She asked subjects to state that they felt either anxious, excited or calm before launching into song, regardless of how they actually felt. The result: the people who said they were excited received the highest marks for their musical prowess on the karaoke console.

The same thing happened when participants read a note that said “try to get excited” before solving some tough math problems. Their scores were almost 10 percent higher than those whose instructions were “try to remain calm.”

It could be that when we attempt to suppress the jitters, we focus on what could go wrong. But by spinning the anxiety into enthusiasm, we dive in with both feet. And are less likely to stumble.