There’s a fine line between anxiety and excitement. Physiologically, the two are almost identical. You know the feeling: elevated heart rate, stomach butterflies, sweaty palms, and nervousness. They’re all symptoms that result from the arousal of the nervous system.
Whether you’re getting ready for a date or preparing to give a speech in front of your peers, the physical sensations are very similar. The difference between excitement and anxiety lies in our interpretation of them. We associate excitement with positive feelings, but we think of anxiety as an overwhelmingly negative emotion that’s at times debilitating.
What’s more, in the workplace, chronic anxiety can take a toll on our performance and our ability to lead effectively. As a CEO and founder of a tech company in Silicon Valley, anxiety is a widespread presence among many of my peers. This isn’t surprising, given that most of them operate in a culture that wears stress like a badge of honor.
When we experience moderate anxiety, our first instinct may be to search for ways to eliminate it. But research shows that there may be a better way to manage those negative emotions without trying to repress them entirely. It all begins with a simple shift in perspective. Instead of trying to “Keep Calm and Carry On,” perhaps a smarter approach is to “Keep Excited and Work on.”
Anxiety: the silent (career) killer
It’s worth noting that some anxiety can be a good thing. A study conducted over a century ago by two Harvard psychologists demonstrated that moderate levels of stress improved performance in humans and animals.
However, too much anxiety causes our performance to suffer— like when you concentrate too much attention on your anxiety and can’t perform at all (i.e., you choke.) If you’ve had that experience, don’t worry, you’re not alone: choking happens regularly to around one-fifth of the population.
Anxiety may also cause you to avoid challenging situations—you might react negatively to colleagues and shy away from potentially rewarding risks. In the long-term, it can forestall your professional advancement or the growth of your company. In terms of your physical health, persistent anxiety has also been linked to heart disease, chronic respiratory disorders, and gastrointestinal conditions.
Simple tools for changing your mind
I’m no stranger to anxiety. Being CEO of my company, JotForm, has its fair share of stress, even if I’m a strong advocate for maintaining a balanced lifestyle and getting plenty of rest. At the same time, I don’t want my negative emotions to impact my team. So I’ve been searching for the best way to manage anxiety without eliminating that good, energized feeling.
What I’ve found is that it comes down to reframing our nervousness and relabeling anxiety as “excitement.” Though it may seem like just a slight change, researchers have found that relabeling our emotions can significantly affect our confidence levels and how we perform.
In a 2014 study, Harvard professor Alison Wood Brooks looked at different ways to cope with pre-performance anxiety. Whereas most people believed that the best method was to try to calm down, Wood Brooks found that people who “reappraised” their anxiety as excitement felt more, well, excited—and more importantly, performed better.
The study went like this: participants performed Journey’s hit song “Don’t Stop Believing.” Beforehand, they were told to say out loud “I am anxious,” “I am excited,” or nothing at all. Using a computer to measure pitch and volume, Wood Brooks found that the participants who said they were excited sang better, in spite of their nerves. It also boosted participants’ beliefs in their ability to perform well in the future, demonstrating that a little positive self-talk has a potentially long-lasting impact.
As Woods Brooks explained:
“The way we verbalize and think about our feelings helps to construct the way we actually feel.”
It’s a simple method that’s worth testing the next time you feel anxious. For example, if you have a presentation to deliver and you catch yourself worrying about everything that could be wrong, flip the switch. Instead, say the following things out loud: I’m excited! Or, tell yourself: Get excited! The key isn’t to destroy the nervousness; just the way you perceive it.
You versus your anxiety
Anxiety can have a powerful effect on all of us. Sometimes, it can feel debilitating. But it’s probably more common than you think. Among entrepreneurs, where launching businesses, taking risks, and immersing ourselves in stressful situations is par for the course, that anxious energy might even fuel us sometimes.
So instead of trying to rid yourself of anxiety, try to relabel your feelings as excitement. Anxiety is strong, but your words and the messages you tell yourself can be even stronger. Of course, you should never shy away from getting professional help if you feel like that’s the best thing for you.
I find it helpful to adopt the attitude of philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who saw anxiety as a response to freedom and “the responsibility we bear for our decisions in light of that freedom.” We can focus on being grateful for our anxiety, crazy as that might sound, and with that gratitude find some relief.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.