Keep Calm and…. Hang on – Have We Got that Wrong?

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Keep Calm and (Blog post)

Imagine you’re about to deliver a big presentation, or sit an important test.  Even if you’re well prepared, the chances are you’d be feeling stressed.  The vast majority of people (over 90%) believe that the best approach in that kind of stressful situation, is to try to calm down.  Not easy! And as it turns out, not very helpful either.

Research carried out at Harvard measured performance in 3 stressful tasks:  Singing in front of a stranger, giving a short talk (the dreaded public speaking!), and a maths test.    In all 3, the participants were split into 3 groups – one asked to say “I’m calm”, a control group asked to say nothing, and a group asked to say “I’m excited”.  Nothing more – just to say it.

In all three tests, the ‘calm’ group performed worse than the control group, and the excited group performed the best – even though saying they were excited didn’t reduce how anxious they also felt.

This same re-framing has also been used for highly maths-averse students before tests, before subjecting people with social anxiety to the social stress test (the one designed to really pile on the pressure), and before college exams.  In every experiment, some kind of mind set intervention or re-frame improved performance – even though it had no effect on how stressful participants said they’d found the experience itself.

So what made the difference?  It could be as simple as a few slides, showing how the physical changes of that high arousal state help to boost performance – the focused attention, the increased heart rate and blood flow carrying around more oxygen to fuel the whole system….

Because once you’re more comfortable that these changes are helpful, rather than something to fight with, you can turn your attention back to the task in hand. 

Nobody expects their favourite team to walk out on to the field feeling calm on final day – if anything, they’ll have been pumping up the adrenaline as they got ready.  They know how to channel the experience into peak performance.

Now I’m not suggesting that you shout out war cry, or thump the air before your next presentation; but how could you turn that little bit of anxious into an even better performance?


Reference:  Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement.  Alison Wood Brooks, Harvard Business School

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