A few years ago, when I expressed worry about an upcoming speaking engagement, my therapist drew a little diagram for me. In one corner, she wrote the word “anxiety.” In another, she wrote “excitement.” Then she drew two lines, connecting them to the same little dot in the middle, to illustrate that both of these emotions come from the same starting place—it’s how you respond that informs which feeling you experience.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily true if you have an actual anxiety disorder, and some anxiety can’t be turned into excitement because it’s a very real signal your body is telling you that you might be in danger.
However, there really are a ton of opportunities to turn a negative feeling or thought into a positive one, and turn those jitters into jazz(ed) hands. Here’s why that’s true—and how to accomplish it for yourself.
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Both excitement and anxiety involve the same chemical process in the brain.
What separates these two arousal emotions are the associations we make with them, says Sal Raichbach, Psy.D., LCSW, of Ambrosia Treatment Center.
When you experience anxiety, the first thing that happens is your senses observe your environment, and you feel that rush of cortisol in your brain as the fight-or-flight mentality begins to set in. This is something humans have evolved to do to be able to sense danger and respond quickly, which is why it all happens in a matter of seconds, Raisbach says.
But a part of this response is also your ability to recall your previous experience, and that’s where the anxiety or excitement will start to differentiate, Raisbach says. If you’ve been anxious in past while public speaking, chances are that you are going to be anxious when you are walking up to that podium again. The difference between healthy anxiety and unhealthy anxiety is your relationship with this stimulus—and whether or not it’s making you feel fear.
Distinguish between good and bad anxiety.
So if you see a car about to hit you, you should be feeling fear and anxiety. 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.
“Unhealthy” anxiety could be a fear of 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 and turn that fear into excitement.
Recent research has found that if we reappraise anxiety as excitement, we will actually perform better—no matter the task.
A.J. Marsden, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Beacon College, points out that there are three different components of every emotion: how our bodies react to it, how we express it, and 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. While 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 it more macroscopically, in both situations, you’re being judged and watched, so what’s the difference?
It’s how we feel about ourselves and the situation. Often, that comes down to confidence and the way we frame the situation to ourselves.
Raichbach says it’s crucial to grab those negative, fear-based thoughts before they settle in.
If you’re about to give a big presentation in front of an audience and feel that familiar, nervous gut-feeling, stop yourself before you turn that into negative self-talk.
This is the point when you have you control over your own response: You can flip that negative sentence you were about to tell yourself into something positive. For example, if you’re approaching the stage, thinking, I’m so completely nervous, I’m positive I am going to stumble over my words, then 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. Simple tricks like this can set you up for success.
Life coach Mary Kaba Valis of Your Sparkling Potential says 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 for us to get better at training ourselves to live more exciting, less distressing lives:
1. Fold a piece of paper in half.
2. Label the left side Column A and the right side Column B.
3. Think about the thoughts or phrases you may commonly use that could drag you down, reduce your joy, or cause you anxiety. On the left, in Column A, write down a few thoughts or statements that bring you anxiety or cause negativity in your day. On the other side, Column B, reword 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 opposite: 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 instance, you may be less anxious about flying if you know you’re prepared with all of your favorite comforts, distractions, and stuff you want to bring on your trip—so make a list and prep a day or two before you fly. Similarly, you can have talking points written out for your presentation or be prepared with some small talk for a party.
Envision the event going well and coming out on the other side.
As much as any upcoming event or task can feel like a life-changing be-all, end-all it probably really isn’t. It’s just another thing to do. Marsden suggests asking these questions:
1. Is this productive worry?
2. Is there anything I can do?
3. Or 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.
Using these strategies to handle end-of-day anxiety is also important—it can help you get to sleep.
For many of us, falling asleep is tough, since we’re both processing and reflecting on the events of the day, and we’re often overstimulated and preoccupied with what we have to do tomorrow, projecting 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 in hindsight, you have gotten through this all before, and the worry didn’t do any good. And the situation is rarely as bad as you build it up to be in your head.
Helaina Hovitz is an editor, writer, content strategist, and author of the memoir After 9/11. She is a native New Yorker, nonprofit enthusiast, rescue dog lover, and has eaten at approximately 500 million thousand restaurants. Follow her @helainahovitz on Twitter and Facebook.