Nervous? Say “I’m Excited!”

Believe it or not, there are benefits of turning nerves into excitement

February 16, 2017

They run through our hands and feet, making palms feel clammy and our legs shuffle with jitters. They strike right before senior speeches, presentations, matches, meets, and games—at times compromising our performance, and other times acting as a simple annoyance. Nerves.

Nerves thrive in the high school environment where the otherwise easy going semesters are punctuated by events where students must speak or perform in front of an audience. For some, carrying such a pressure on their shoulders comes naturally or has become so through years of practice. While, for others, the thought of speaking in assembly, presenting to the class, performing in a play, or playing in a sporting event is cause for panic.

The other pressure then comes from society and from nervous people towards themselves to remain calm,  to transform one’s nervousness and into serenity.  

However, recent research has shown that this transformation of emotion does not come easily or naturally. Instead, people trying to manage their nerves should practice anxiety reappraisal, which basically means you should tell yourself that you’re excited when in reality you feel quite nervous.

When someone feels nervous about an upcoming speech, game, or similarly stress inducing event, the common response is to try and calm down. However, when people tell each other to just relax or breathe deeply in order to relieve anxiety, they’re essentially trying to jump from one heightened emotion to another completely different, calm one. It’s not easy to reel in nervous thoughts, blood pressure, sweat, and other physical symptoms of anxiousness all at once. Research claims that, since anxiousness is a heightened emotion, channeling those feelings into another intense emotion such as excitement proves more effective.

According to the Atlantic, “anxiety and excitement are both aroused emotions. In both, the heart beats faster, cortisol surges, and the body prepares for action. In other words, they’re ‘arousal congruent.’”  

Alison Wood Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School, found that the anxious-to-excited method of emotion management proves effective in situations ranging from math tests to speeches to performing on stage.

What’s the narrative you’re going to tell yourself? It can be an energizing narrative.

— Upper School Counselor Susanna Short

Her research abstract states “Across several studies involving karaoke singing, public speaking, and math performance, I investigate an alternative strategy: reappraising anxiety as excitement. Compared to those who attempt to calm down, individuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement feel more excited and perform better.”

By implementing this mindset, one can re-frame their revved up emotions in a positive light.

A primer on nerves with Susanna Short

The act of becoming nervous generates a physiological response, creating the destructive and classic combination of a stressed mind and body. “For most of us, what happens is that our heart rate goes up, our blood pressure goes up, we start to sweat … and then, unfortunately, our respiration becomes rapid and shallow. So, that really all combines to send a message to our brain that we’re not getting enough oxygen, but there’s clearly something wrong because our blood pressure and heart rate are up and we’re sweating,” Upper School Counselor Susanna Short said.

In these events of relatively short term stress, the body releases the stress hormone cortisol. “Which, is not a great chemical and not that great for a lot of systems in the body. And, it really clouds thinking. Actually, it impedes our ability to make a plan going forward,” Short said.

Mayo Clinic states that cortisol temporarily weakens the body’s immune, digestive, and reproductive systems by diverting energy away from functions that would be unimportant in a fight-or-flight situation. For example, if someone with a fear of public speaking is about to give a presentation, his/her hypothalamus triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline. The response of the human body to a difficult situation such as a senior speech, presentation, or sporting event, is the reflection of a more primal survival response.

Short uses a classic predator versus prey, fight or flight response situation as an example: “If I punch the predator or if I run from it, my brain releases different chemicals and hormones and it sort of dispels or disperses those stress hormones,” she said.  

By responding to the fight or flight signals, essentially acting to resolve the problem at hand, one can relieve at least the physical symptoms of anxiety. However, Short states that, failing to act and, instead, remaining in a heightened state of stress perpetuates the body’s stress response. And, as many students may know, nerves can often-times leave one feeling paralyzed rather than ready to take action. If it’s good to face stress head on to dispel stress hormones such as cortisol, then students may need to find ways to deal with stress inducing situations rather than wallowing in negative energy. 

Frame your situation with a negative mindset and it will likely hinder your performance while positive framing is a helpful narrative.

The importance of minimizing one’s negative emotions lays in the detrimental effects of nervousness on performance. Short states that the impact of one’s thoughts on the outcome of a test, speech, or game depends a lot on the individual. However, it’s very possible that negative framing on situation built by nervousness detracts from one’s ability to achieve peak performance.

“Because I used to play piano … I think of a piano competition. And, if I was really prepared and I knew that song, I was excited about it so I felt I could channel that nervousness into energy I could use. But, if I knew … like, I did go to one competition not as prepared as I should have been and the two keys I needed most on the piano, in a statewide competition, were sticking … Then, instead of bringing excitement and energy, what I brought was self doubt and worry. And, how it impedes your abilities is that you really start to doubt what you can do and you start to write a story in your head,” Short said.

Short emphasizes the importance of students’ mental narratives: frame your situation with a negative mindset and it will likely hinder your performance while positive framing is a helpful narrative.

“The narrative of ‘The key sticks, I’m not prepared, I probably shouldn’t be at this competition, everyone is better than I am’—that’s really going to get in the way,” Short said.

Short’s perspective on the research around anxiety-reappraisal is relatively positive, except she encourages physical calming and an increase in mental energy rather than a total embrace of excitement.

A calm body, and then a focused narrative of giving energy outwards—I think that’s what helps.

— Upper School Counselor Susanna Short

“I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to be like ‘let’s get our heart rate faster,’ so, uncrossing your legs, taking a few deep breaths [are important]. But, then, what’s the narrative you’re going to tell yourself? It can be an energizing narrative,” Short said.

So, when students feel nervous before a big performance or event, perhaps, instead of calming down or getting excited both mentally and physically, they should do a combination of both. Physically calming down to get one’s heart rate down while re-framing the situation in an excited light can give students a focused energy.

Short uses the situation of a nervous athlete to illustrate the importance of this type of mentality. “If you’re a good athlete, you’ve trained hard, you’ve prepared, then you want good, focused energy with a narrative of ‘I’m going to do [a specific action or goal].’ What you don’t want though, is this cocky and scattered narrative of just energy. Just energy doesn’t help athletes, it doesn’t help musicians, it doesn’t help students. A calm body, and then a focused narrative of giving energy outwards—I think that’s what helps,” Short said.

Noah Rice and swimming nerves

While nerves frequently plague the classroom and stage, making students’ hearts flutter before performances and presentation, they can also be found at the pool. Some student athletes, such as freshman swimmer Noah Rice, must manage their nerves before a meet, match, or game in order to perform better.

Freshman swimmer Noah Rice dives into the water at a swim meet at South View MIddle School.

Amodhya Samarakoon

Rice states that his usual calm is broken by feelings of anxiety before bigger, more important meets. “It is always the worst right before I swim an event, but affects me the whole day of the meet. When I am feeling nervous my body feels sick and sometimes small tasks such as picking up something or writing are hard because my hands will shake.”

But, rather than giving into his nervousness before plunging into the pool, Rice positively channels those feelings to improve his performance. “Nerves have always helped me swim faster than I thought I could. I think it is because my mind becomes distracted and adrenaline compensates at some level for the lactic acid build up.”

He uses a method of calming down that aligns with Short’s idea of re-framing nerves into something more positive such as excitement as the anxiety reappraisal research suggests. “When I am nervous behind the blocks, I try to get into the mindset that the nerves are really going to help me be the best I can be.”

As Short stated earlier, athletes want focused energy rather than scattered excitement. “If I focus on the nerves as a negative, I will swim with a distracted mindset. As a sprinter I have to be focused to the fullest for the whole race. One small lapse in concentration could cost me tenths to a whole second.”

Senior Speeches and public speaking nerves

Another nerve wracking event that’s also a requirement for every graduate is the senior speech. Lauren Hansen, Drew O’Hern, Ivan Gunther, and Andrew Michel read their speeches this past Friday, Jan. 27, to the Upper School community. The topics of these speeches varied: Hansen explored social media’s influence on our perceptions, O’Hern examined his identity as a twin and how comparisons negatively impact different identities, Michel detailed his love for comic books and superheroes, while Gunther shared a look at his personality and mind.

Mimi Geller
Last Friday, seniors Andrew Michel, Lauren Hansen, Drew O’Hern, and Ivan Gunther gave their speeches to the SPA community.

Senior speeches, while often entertaining, inspiring, and well-written, are also often a source of fear and anticipation for those standing behind the podium. “I’m nervous that I will mess up or that my speech will not be well received and met with confusion,” Michel said the day before delivering his speech.

Two of the speakers, Michel and Hansen, stated that they prefer trying to calm down to manage any anxiety, while Gunther tries to silence his nerves or distract himself. “I haven’t really freaked out yet, but there’s still time. Usually when I get stressed though, I just take a few deep breaths, give myself some perspective, and calm down,” Hansen said.

However, O’Hern uses a method of stress-management similar to the anxiety-reappraisal suggested by recent research. “Beforehand I am always chipper and excited, throwing around jokes and acting silly. Keeping my mind off the task at hand helps,” he said.

The nerves were there: not in my mind, but in my body.

— Senior Ivan Gunther

Reflecting on his speech, O’Hern stated, “My normal methods worked well. I was excited and choose to express that excitement by being weird and funny right beforehand.”

Interestingly, Hansen and O’Hern implement different methods to remain focused before a game, race, or meet. “When I’m nervous for sports, I turn all the nerves into energy. I usually go out there and either knock someone down or do something really well, and that helps me get out of my head and into the game. I haven’t used this for my speech yet,” Hansen said.

During speeches, Gunther recalls an unintentional feeling of excitement. “I didn’t think about whether I was excited or not; I knew I was a bit nervous, but in retrospect I was also anxious to get on the podium. I suppose I actually was excited, though I didn’t consciously try,” he said. “The nerves were there: not in my mind, but in my body. I was annoyed to find that my hands began shaking slightly towards the end & my heartbeat accelerated, even though I myself felt little stress.”

Perhaps generalizing one method of anxiety management for various situations is ineffective because students require certain levels of energy and focus for athletics, while less physical tasks such as giving a speech call for calmness. In order for students to perform their best and tackle any task at hand with confidence, they may need to experiment with different methods of stress reduction such as deep breathing, joking around, or implementing the newly discovered anxiety-reappraisal technique.


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