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Overcoming performance anxiety: get excited

I have my doubts about purported studies showing that people fear public speaking more than death. As comedian Jerry Seinfeld sums up the outrageousness of the notion: “If you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

No question, though, we’ve all experienced performance anxiety at one time or another -- and it’s probably led to some disastrous results. I still have vivid memories of tanking a high school singing audition for a state chorus festival, the only student hand-picked by my music teacher who didn’t get in.

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Fear had caused my vocal cords to tighten, my voice to crack. If only I had been able to relax, I told myself at the time.

As it turns out, though, that would have been tough to do and an inefficient way to improve my performance. That’s according to new research from Harvard Business School, which found that getting excited -- rather than relaxed -- about the aspect of singing or speaking in public was a far more effective way to reduce performance anxiety.

Several experiments conducted by Harvard psychologist Alison Wood Brooks found that people who uttered simple statements to themselves about feeling excited about an upcoming challenge were more likely to perform better than those who told themselves to calm down or simply acknowledged their fears.

“More than 90 percent of the participants in my study thought the right way to cope with anxiety is to try calm themselves down,” said Brooks. “But it’s much easier to flip from anxiety to excitement since they’re both about the body being in a state of high arousal” with a faster heart beat, pulse, and breathing rate.

While relaxing also leads to a positive state of mind, it’s harder to achieve because the body needs to slow down its engines to achieve it.

In a series of experiments published online by an American Psychological Association journal, Brooks first videotaped speeches given by 140 volunteers who were told they would be judged by a committee. Before delivering the speech, participants were instructed to say “I am excited” or “I am calm,” and those who told themselves to feel excited gave longer speeches and were rated by independent evaluators as more persuasive, competent and relaxed than those who said they were calm.

Another experiment that involved solving difficult math problems found that those instructed to try to feel excited about the task scored 8 percent higher on average than those told to feel calm and those in the control group who weren’t given any instructions. Study participants who told themselves they were excited also scored higher on a karaoke competition in a different experiment compared to those who told themselves they were anxious, calm, or angry before they sang.

Is it really that easy, to just utter the word “excited” and -- poof! -- no more performance anxiety? Even the Peter Pan characters needed pixie dust, along with thinking wonderful thoughts, to fly.

“Telling yourself you’re excited about an upcoming challenge,” Brooks said, “makes you focus on the opportunities in any situation. You’re reappraising your anxiety as a positive thing that could be fun or improve your relationship with friends or co-workers -- and isn’t simply performance based.”

Anything that improves self-confidence can help alleviate performance anxiety. German researchers from the University of Cologne found in a recent study that those who held some kind of “lucky” object in a experiment performed better on memory tests than those who were not allowed to hold one.

“I teach this technique all the time to my clients -- to get jazzed up about meeting that challenge -- but it’s nice to see data supporting it,” said psychology researcher Eric Garland, an associate director in integrative medicine at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah who was not involved in the Harvard study.

From an evolutionary perspective, our human ancestors developed the fight or flight response to quickly respond to a threat. “Our bodies require being energized to have mental clarity for any kind of performance,” Garland said. “We don’t want to be too relaxed, or we won’t perform well.”

Of course, people with full-blown anxiety disorders likely need professional help in the form of therapy and medication to help them overcome some of their fears. But, Brooks pointed out, these techniques could also help them deal with anxious moments on a daily basis. “They just need to tell themselves they’re excited more often.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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