Backstage, I turned to the actor. “I’m anxious,” I said to the actor. She looked as cool as a cucumber.
“Put another way,” she whispered, “you’re excited.” Then she flashed a megawatt smile.
I’ve thought of this reframing-renaming exercise many times since, especially when I am approaching situations about which I feel anxiety or trepidation. And I feel those things a lot. Research shows that anxiety may not only be helpful information, but it can be a pathway to our best selves, the New York Times reports.
The reframing-renaming trick works. How we think about our anxiety and stress affects how we experience it, a 2012 study from the University of Wisconsin demonstrated; regardless of actual stress levels, the less harmful you believe the feeling is, the less harmful it will be.
Here’s an example. Sweating a job interview? Yes, you’re nervous. But you’re also excited about the prospect of this position. Antsy before a first date? That’s the thrill of the unknown (that could turn into a love connection). Simply thinking about your emotional state in a different way changes how you experience it. A study published in July from the University of Illinois confirmed that a positive attitude can boost our brain’s ability to manage discomfort. Your cognitive behavioral therapist knows what they’re talking about. Your thoughts do influence your reality, for better or for worse.
And a little bit of anxiety can actually enhance your performance. Students and athletes who experienced some anxiety displayed improved performance on tests and in competitive sports; anxiety can even improve your cognitive functioning and memory recall. At the very least, anxiety over an outcome can drive you to prepare for the upcoming event.
You don’t have to like the experience of anxiety to be able to use it to your advantage. “Anxiety is designed to be uncomfortable so you pay attention and do what you need to make it stop,” writes psychologist Alicia Clark, author of Hack Your Anxiety: How to Make Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love, and All That You Do. Reframing your anxiety as excitement, nerves, or something else, allows you to use the information of its message and not only the discomfort of the experience.
If you can think of your anxiety as a flag waving for your attention, it can help you focus on what’s important in your life, whether that’s making a good first impression with your future in-laws, crushing it on the tennis court, or getting that short story published. Your anxiety can be a way to see what’s at stake for you in your life and where you want to improve, grow, and excel.
Are we channeling Bobby Darin and saying, “Don’t worry, be happy”? Not exactly. Actively trying to avoid anxiety due to our fear of it can trap us in a kind of anxiety feedback loop, leading to an increase in anxiety. I’m anxious about feeling anxious!
We can’t control our physiological fight-or-flight responses to stress and anxiety, and we wouldn’t want to. Those reactions have evolved to keep us safe and alive. What we can control is how we think about our anxiety and how we respond to it.
“Just as fearing anxiety increases it, embracing anxiety dissipates it to a point where it’s useful,” Clark advises. “The less we fear anxiety and can embrace it, the more useful and helpful it can be.”
And that’s good news for the nail biters among us. We’re just thrilled to see how it all turns out.