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Got Nerves? Try Transforming Anxiety into Excitement

Most of us tend to feel nervous before a big presentation, a performance, or a challenging task. If you’re like me, hearing the words “keep calm” in that moment only adds to the feelings of anxiety. While the phrase “keep calm” has gained popularity, it tends to do the opposite to help with our experiences of nervousness.

So what actually works when it comes to handling nerves?

Rethinking “Keep Calm”

When teaching me about conducting employee training, a mentor of mine once told me, “It takes the same energy to be worried as it does to be excited.” Little did I know then that behavioral science research demonstrates exactly that.

Anxiety elevates us, psychologically and physiologically. Our minds and hearts rates race when confronted with a daunting task. In that moment hearing “keep calm” may only remind us of how calm we aren’t feeling.

Instead of trying to lower our energy level to a calm state, consider shifting the focus. Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks and colleagues showed that reframing anxiety as excitement leads to much better outcomes when faced with a task like a presentation or performance. This reframing technique works with the amped up feeling of anxiety to open up our minds to what could go well. It transforms negative anxiety into positive excitement and anticipation.

From Nervous to Excited

With a mindset on what could go right, people tend to perform better than they would without reframing. And the sense of accomplishment after a job well-done fuels self-confidence for the next challenging task.

Consistently reframing can help us perform better and better on tasks that cause us anxiety. Next time you’re facing an anxiety-inducing task at work tell yourself (and a colleague) that you feel excited about the opportunity. If you’re a leader, encourage your team to adopt an excitement about a task they are anxious about. This could go a long way to helping you (and your team) perform best and transform nerves in a productive way.

Danielle Metzinger is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She leads efforts across agencies and sectors to think big about improving government for generations to come. Danielle serves as an Organizational Excellence Specialist in the executive office of the California Department of Transportation. Throughout her public service career, she has worked on high profile projects related to organizational development and succession planning in California state government. She leads NxtGov, a nonprofit professional network for public servants, and Innovative Pathways to Public Service, a collaborative of educators and government officials to bring young people into public sector careers.  You can read her posts here.

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Profile Photo Kaitlin Moller

Love this article! It reminds me of when somebody tells you to “relax” and it makes you feel so much less relaxed. I’m definitely going to try to incorporate reframing in the workplace. Thank you!

Profile Photo Blake Martin

I love the reframing and your concept of mentally shifting to a more focused mode of output, as long as one can remember to breathe in these tenser moments. Great first post Danielle!