Use Stress to Your Advantage
To perform under pressure, research finds that welcoming anxiety is more helpful than calming down
May 15, 2015 10:38 a.m. ET
Imagine that you work for an organization with hundreds of employees and you’re about to give a presentation to the entire group. The CEO and all the board members are in the audience. You’ve been anxious about this talk all week, and now your heart is pounding. Your palms are sweating. Your mouth feels dry.
What is the best thing to do in this moment? Should you try to calm down or try to feel excited?
When Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks asked hundreds of people this question, the responses were nearly unanimous: 91% thought that the best advice was to try to calm down. But is it true?
Prof. Brooks designed an experiment to find out. For a research paper published last yearin the Journal of Experimental Psychology, she recruited 140 people to give a speech. She told part of the group to relax and to calm their nerves by saying to themselves, “I am calm.” The others were told to embrace their anxiety and to tell themselves, “I am excited.”
Members of both groups were still nervous before the speech, but the participants who had told themselves “I am excited” felt better able to handle the pressure and were more confident of their ability to give a good talk. Not only that, but observers who rated the talks found the excited speakers more persuasive, confident and competent than the participants who had tried to calm down. With this one change in mind-set, the speakers had transformed their anxiety into energy that helped them to perform under pressure.
The Harvard study is part of a growing body of research to find that the best way to handle stress is to embrace it rather than to minimize it. Whether it’s a student facing a final exam, an executive delivering a big presentation or an athlete preparing for a championship game, welcoming stress can boost confidence and improve performance. When you stop resisting it, stress can fuel you.
“We’re bombarded with information about how bad stress is,” says Jeremy Jamieson, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who specializes in stress. But the conventional view, he says, fails to appreciate the many ways in which physical and psychological tension can help us to perform better.
In research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2010, Prof. Jamieson tested his theory with college students who were preparing to take the Graduate Record Examination, which is used for admission to Ph.D. programs. He invited 60 students to take a practice GRE and collected saliva samples from them beforehand to get baseline measures of their levels of alpha-amylase, a hormonal indicator of stress. He told them that the goal of the study was to examine how the physiological stress response affects performance.
He then gave half the students a brief pep talk to help them rethink their pre-exam nervousness. “People think that feeling anxious while taking a standardized test will make them do poorly,” he told them. “However, recent research suggests that stress doesn’t hurt performance on these tests and can even help performance. People who feel anxious during a test might actually do better…. If you find yourself feeling anxious, simply remind yourself that your stress could be helping you do well.”
It worked: Students who received the mind-set intervention scored higher on the practice exam than those in the control group. Nor could the difference in GRE scores be attributed to differences in ability: Students had been randomly assigned to the two groups and didn’t differ, on average, in their SAT scores or college GPAs.
Prof. Jamieson wondered about another possible explanation: Perhaps his pep talk had simply calmed the students down instead of helping them to use their stress. To test this proposition, he took a second saliva sample from students after the exam. The group that had received the mind-set message showed higher, not lower, levels of salivary alpha-amylase—in other words, they were more stressed after the exam, not less.
Interestingly, he also found that stress by itself, as measured by the saliva sample, was not the key to better performance. For students who had received the pep talk, a stronger physical stress response was associated with higher scores. In contrast, there was no relationship between stress hormones and performance in the control group. The stress response by itself had not helped or hurt their test-taking in any predictable way.
What makes such mind-set interventions so promising, says Prof. Jamieson, is that when they work, they do not just have an immediate, onetime effect—they stick. He delivered his pep talk days before the actual exam, but the students had somehow internalized its message.
Prof. Jamieson didn’t track the students after their GRE exams, but other research hints at the broader impact of self-consciously embracing anxiety. In research published last year in the journal Anxiety, Stress and Coping, 100 students at the University of Lisbon kept daily diaries during an exam period. They reported how much anxiety they felt and how they interpreted their anxiety.
Students who viewed their anxiety as helpful, not harmful, reported less emotional exhaustion. They also did better on their exams and earned higher grades at the end of the term. Critically, the effects of mind-set were strongest when anxiety levels were high. A positive mind-set protected the most anxious students from emotional exhaustion and helped them to succeed in their goals.
The researchers went a step further to see whether they could change students’ experience of exhaustion after a stressful exam. They told some who were about to take a hard test, “If you experience stress or anxiety, try to channel or use the energy those feelings may arouse in order to do your best.” Another group of students was advised, “If you experience stress or anxiety, try to focus on the task to do your best.” A final group was told simply, “Please try to do your best.”
After the test, students completed a measure of how depleted they felt from the experience. The least exhausted were those who had been encouraged to view their stress and anxiety as energy they could use.
A positive view of anxiety also can make you less likely to burn out in a demanding job. Ina study published in 2014 in Cognition and Emotion, researchers at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, followed midcareer teachers and physicians for a year to see if their views on this issue influenced their well-being at work. At the beginning of the year, the teachers and doctors were asked if they saw anxiety as a helpful feeling, providing energy and motivation, or as harmful. At the end of the year, those who saw their anxiety as helpful were less likely to be burned out, frustrated or drained by their work.
The upshot? When you are anxious before having to perform at a big event—whether it’s a meeting, a speech, a competition or an exam—remember that there is a fine line between tension and excitement. Embrace your nerves.
—Dr. McGonigal is a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. This essay is adapted from her latest book, “The Upside of Stress,” recently published by Avery.