Excitement often disguises itself as anxiety. And anxiety is a perfectly natural emotion.
However, if it runs unchecked, it could lead to an anxiety disorder — something 19.1 percent of U.S. adults surveyed said they’d experienced in the last year, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Learning how to process anxiety as excitement can be a step in the right direction for managing excessively anxious feelings.
When your team is seconds away from winning the World Series, you might feel anxious about a sudden defeat, but it’s easy to convert that into the excitement of victory. Both of these reactions come from the same starting place — it’s how you respond that informs the emotion you experience.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily true if you have an anxiety disorder. And some anxiety can’t be turned into excitement, because it’s a very real signal from your body that you might be in danger.
No one should be excited about a bus hurtling toward them at full speed. Sometimes you need to be anxious enough to get out of the f*cking way.
But there really are a ton of opportunities to turn negative feelings or thoughts into positive ones. Here’s how to turn those jitters into jazz(ed) hands.
These two arousal emotions are separated by the associations we make with them, says Sal Raichbach, Psy.D., LCSW, a psychologist with Ambrosia Treatment Center.
When you experience anxiety, the first thing that happens is that your senses observe your environment and you feel that rush of cortisol in your brain as the fight-or-flight response begins to set in.
This is an instinct humans have evolved to sense danger and respond quickly, which is why it all happens in a matter of seconds, Raichbach says.
But another part of this response is your ability to recall your previous experience, and that’s where the anxiety or excitement will start to differentiate, Raichbach says.
For example, if you’ve been anxious in the past while public speaking, chances are you’re going to be anxious when you’re walking up to that podium again.
The difference between healthy anxiety and unhealthy anxiety is your relationship with this stimulus and whether it’s making you feel fear.
If a car, person, or falling piano is about to hit you, you should be feeling fear and anxiety. That very anxiety switches us into fight-or-flight mode. It got our slightly-more-hunched-and-furry ancestors the hell away from threats and hazards.
But we’re no longer fleeing saber-toothed tigers on the daily, so our evolution has changed our definition of “threat.”
This is why we now feel anxious ahead of, say, a job interview. No interviewer is a threat to your physical safety (and if they are, you should probably decline the job offer), but not getting a job might result in reduced security or put our living situation in jeopardy.
So our modern brains and bodies react in a similar way to those of our Neanderthal forebears.
While there are ways to approach a job interview that reduce this anxiety and enhance your chances of success, this is still a proportionate worry (although you rock and definitely deserve that role).
A more complex example, Raichbach says, is the type of unhealthy anxiety that comes up when you aren’t in any specific danger, but your body triggers that response anyway.
This anxiety could take the form of fears around meeting new people or feeling trapped in a large crowd. But since you’re not really in danger in these situations, it isn’t risky or unsafe to try to turn that fear into excitement.
This is where you can and should put in the legwork to feel better.
Research from 2013 suggests that if we reappraise anxiety as excitement, we’ll actually perform better.
A.J. Marsden, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Beacon College, points out that there are three components of every emotion:
- how our bodies react to it
- how we express it
- how we experience it
We then label these feelings good or bad.
Sometimes, she says, it’s all relative. An Olympic athlete might more easily experience the starting gun as excitement, since an adrenaline rush is coming and there’s a potential reward at the end. Someone in another anxiety-producing situation (for instance, someone who has to give a presentation to their boss) might be more inclined to feel simply nervous.
But if you look at the bigger picture, in both situations, you’re being judged and watched — so what’s the difference?
It’s how we feel about ourselves and the situation. That often comes down to confidence and the way we frame the circumstances in our heads.
If you’re about to give a big presentation in front of an audience and you feel that familiar nervous gut feeling, stop yourself before you turn it into negative self-talk.
This is the point when you have control over your response: You can flip that negative sentence you were about to tell yourself into something positive.
For example, you might approach the stage thinking, “I’m so completely nervous, I’m positive I am going to stumble over my words and then sh*t myself.”
This is your chance to flip that script. Instead, you could say to yourself: “I’m going to use this excitement to focus on speaking loud and clear, and I’m going to kick ass. And I’m super hyped about the opportunities it might bring.”
Simple tricks like this can set you up for success.
Life coach Mary Kaba Valis of Your Sparkling Potential suggests that while we can’t control everything, we can most likely influence it.
And if we can influence it, we have power over it, she says. She offers the following exercise as a way to get better at training yourself to live a more exciting, less distressing life:
- Fold a piece of paper in half.
- Label the left side “Column A” and the right side “Column B.”
- Think about the thoughts or phrases you may commonly use that could drag you down, reduce your joy, or cause you anxiety. In Column A, write down a few thoughts or statements that bring you anxiety or cause negativity in your day.
- In Column B, rephrase the anxiety-produced thoughts in a positive way.
Anxiety-produced thought: I know I’m going to forget what I want to say during my presentation and embarrass myself.
Positive reversal: I’m honestly excited that I was invited to speak. I’ve prepared for this, and it’s going to be awesome.
Anxiety-produced thought: Today is already crappy. I’m exhausted and I haven’t even gotten out the door yet.
Positive reversal: I’m going to give myself permission to not be perfect, I’m going to take care of myself, and I’m going to do what I can to make today great for myself.
Planning for upcoming events can also help you feel more secure.
For example, if you put extra time into learning lyrics, you’re less likely to forget them at the gig — and you’ll know you’ve put in that time, which should make you feel way better about it.
You may be less anxious about flying if you know you’re prepared with all your favorite comforts, distractions, and other stuff you want to bring on your trip. Make a list and prep a day or two before you fly.
Similarly, you can have talking points written out for a presentation or be prepared with some small talk or anecdotes for a party.
Prep is not about catastrophizing and playing out all the worst possible outcomes — it’s about doing what you can to feel and stay confident in scenarios that make you uncomfortable.
Once one of these situations goes your way, you can start to build a library of positive references — moments you can remember and say “Hey, that wasn’t so bad after all.”
As much as any upcoming event or task can feel like a life-changing be-all and end-all, there’s a very strong possibility it really isn’t. It’s just another thing to do.
Marsden suggests asking these questions:
- Is this productive worry?
- Is there anything I can do?
- Is this completely out of my hands?
Anxiety often occurs when we feel uncertain and lack control. To address that, use positive self-talk, focus on potential good outcomes, and prepare for the situation until you feel comfortable approaching it.
For many of us, falling asleep is tough, since we’re processing and reflecting on the events of the day. We’re also often overstimulated and preoccupied with what we have to do the next day, so we project additional worry onto the future.
Psychologist Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D., says that when you feel those negative thoughts coming on, giving yourself a gentle but forceful “Stop!” can be powerful.
You can say it aloud or in your head, depending on the circumstances. But this can be a great way to nip those self-defeating thoughts in the bud.
Recognize that you’ve gotten through this all before, and the worry didn’t do any good in the past. The situation is rarely as bad as you build it up to be in your head.
While you don’t necessarily want to convert anxiety to excitement when you’re trying to sleep, it can be important to identify and cut off harmful thought processes.
This method uses similar techniques to relabeling your anxiety as excitement — it’s all about being aware of your thoughts and regaining control over your emotions.
Anxiety is just excitement in a hat that hates you — so swap the damn hats over, because nobody has time for that sh*t.
It’s vital to regain control over the aspects of life you can change and let go of the ones you can’t. You can manage most anxieties by becoming aware of the thought processes that drive them and reframing those thoughts.
Once an anxiety disorder hits, it can become increasingly difficult to reshape your negative thoughts into positive ones, so you should take steps now to find a positive mindset.
Helaina Hovitz is an editor, writer, content strategist, and author of the memoir After 9/11. She is a native New Yorker, nonprofit enthusiast, and rescue dog lover and has eaten at approximately 500 million thousand restaurants. Follow her @helainahovitz on Twitter and Facebook.