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FRIDAY, Jan. 3, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- If you ever experience performance anxiety -- commonly known as stage fright -- getting excited might help more than trying to calm down, according to a new study.
Researchers at Harvard Business School found that becoming excited before stressful activities, such as taking a math test or speaking in front of a crowd, forces people to think about the positives, rather than dwell on the negatives of the situation. This strategy, they concluded, is a better way to manage anxiety and improve performance.
The study was published recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
"Anxiety is incredibly pervasive," study author Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor of business administration, said in a journal news release. "People have a very strong intuition that trying to calm down is the best way to cope with their anxiety, but that can be very difficult and ineffective.
"When people feel anxious and try to calm down, they are thinking about all the things that could go badly," Brooks said. "When they are excited, they are thinking about how things could go well."
The study included several experiments. One involved 140 people who were told to write a persuasive public speech describing why they would be good work partners. To increase the anxiety associated with this task, a researcher videotaped the speeches and told the participants that a committee would judge their performances.
Before delivering the speech, however, participants were told to say either "I am excited" or "I am calm." The study found that those who said they were excited gave longer, more compelling speeches. They were also more effective and relaxed than the participants who said they were calm.
"The way we talk about our feelings has a strong influence on how we actually feel," Brooks said.
In a second experiment, after being given difficult math problems to solve, nearly 200 participants were told to read one of the following statements: "Try to get excited" or "Try to remain calm." A third comparison group didn't read anything. Those in the "excited" group felt more confident about their math abilities and scored 8 percent higher on average than those in the "calm" group, the researchers found.
In a third experiment, 113 participants were randomly told to say they were anxious, excited, calm, angry or sad before singing karaoke. Meanwhile, a comparison group said nothing. To measure their anxiety level, each participant wore a pulse meter on their finger to monitor their heart rate.
Participants who said they were excited before signing a popular rock song on a video game console scored an average of 80 percent on the song by the video game's rating system. This score assessed their pitch, rhythm and volume.
These people also said they felt more excited and confident in their singing ability than the other participants. In contrast, those who said they were calm, angry or sad scored an average of 69 percent. Those who said they were anxious scored an average of 53 percent.
The researchers suggested that it might be easier for people to view anxiety as excitement since both are states of high arousal.
"When you feel anxious, you're ruminating too much and focusing on potential threats," Brooks said. "In those circumstances, people should try to focus on the potential opportunities. It really does pay to be positive, and people should say they are excited. Even if they don't believe it at first, saying 'I'm excited' out loud increases authentic feelings of excitement."
-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
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SOURCE: Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, news release, December 2013