"There are two types of speakers. Those who get nervous and those who are liars" Mark TwainIn working to control their nerves most speakers are told to work at calming down, to take deep relaxing breaths, to release the tension from their bodies. The aim is, of course, to reduce their anxiety. This is what is known as a Suppression technique, where you are actively working to suppress the emotions that a situation elicits.
However, research conducted by Alison Woods Brooks, professor at Harvard Business School, suggests that working at controlling our nerves may just be the worst thing that we can do. Instead, her studies suggest that we would do better to reframe our anxiety instead.
Anxiety is an aroused emotion. Our heart beats faster, our Cortisol levels (stress hormone) rise, our bodies prepare to take action. We perceive a potential threat to ourselves which puts us on the defensive. Anxiety is therefore a negative mindset that reduces our sense of control. When we attempt to suppress those emotions, by focusing on trying to Calm ourselves, we are asking our brains and bodies to shift to a completely different state, which is an extremely difficult task.
Instead Brooks suggests that we simply reframe the emotions that our anxiety is causing. Instead of thinking of ourselves as being 'nervous', we need to think of ourselves as 'excited'. Excitement is also an aroused emotion. Therefore, physiologically, anxiety and excitement are not so different. The impact of these two emotions on our body is very similar. However, each carries a different impact upon our brains and perceptions.
While both anxiety and excitement exist because they are reacting to a certain amount of perceived uncertainty, we experience anxiety when facing a perceived threat and experience excitement when facing something we are looking forward to. In studies where people reframed their performance anxiety as excitement, rather than anxiety, their performance improved. This is called Anxiety Reappraisal.
Studies are now showing that Reappraisal strategies are far more effective than are Suppression strategies. In Reappraisal strategies you shift your mindset from viewing an emotion eliciting situation in a way that changes its emotional impact on you.
Because both anxiety and excitement experience a very similar physical impact, reframing takes less effort to get the brain to shift than asking it to help calm your nerves. It is far easier to shift from one charged up emotion to another charge up emotion than to control all of the existing physiological elements required to shift to a different state.
High performance requires energy and drive. It comes from a more action-oriented focus, which comes from a more energized state. Rather than looking to tamp down the emotions that comes with an energized state you want to take advantage of them.
Next time that you're hitting the stage or giving that presentation, and are beginning to feel nervous, welcome the emotions it brings and tell yourself that those butterflies you feel are signs of your excitement. Use those revved up emotions to heighten your performance, to draw your audience in, to create an opportunity mindset. Reframing your nerves as excitement may be all that's needed for you to finally kick your Public Speaking fears to the curb.
I'm excited for you to give it a try!