Giving a speech, asking your boss for a raise, going on a blind date — what do these scenarios have in common? For most people, situations like these, which involve vulnerability and uncertainty, trigger lots of anxiety.
Just the thought of a stressful situation can get your heart racing. But as much as you dread those stomach-turning feelings, they serve a purpose. "It's what has allowed our species to evolve to where we are today," says Brad Stulberg, performance coach and co-author of Peak Performance. "Anxiety is the alarm system that goes off when you come across a snake or a tiger saying, 'all systems need to be a go right now.'"
"If you go way back to a time when people faced great dangers and threats to their lives, those who were hypervigilant are the ones who survived," says Jonathan Alpert, psychotherapist, performance coach and author of BE FEARLESS. "But fast forward to modern times, and we don't quite need that level of alertness and mindset."
Except this intense stress response is wired into your nervous system, so even things that aren't a real danger can still cause your heart to hammer inside your chest. But it's not all out of your control. During anxiety-provoking experiences, your body's response might be automatic, but with practice, you can develop the skills to transform your distress into something more positive.
This may not hold true for people living with serious, chronic anxiety, but for those of you who feel the occasional pang of worry, read on to learn how you can flip anxiety on its head and turn your nerves into a potent ally.
1. Understand Your Emotions
Sweaty palms, lurching stomach, racing heart, rapid breathing — your physical response is perhaps the most telltale sign of anxiety. But these same symptoms bear a striking resemblance to those associated with another more positive emotion — in fact, they're the mirror image of the ones you experience when excited.
Take a second and think about a time when you were feeling high on life (riding your favorite rollercoaster, the first time you kissed your longtime crush). The physical reaction is identical, right? That's because whether you're worried or thrilled, your body experiences the same heightened state of arousal.
Now here's the real trippy part: Since they're a match physically, the only difference between anxiety and excitement is your perception of it. "Emotion is energy in motion," says New York-based life coach Annie Lin. "We label certain emotions as 'negative,' but energy by itself is neither good nor bad."
Stulberg agrees your heart pounding response is "simply your body saying 'something important' is happening." That "something important" is open to your interpretation. Both emotions — anxiety and excitement — start the same way, but it's up to you to decide whether you'll translate your body's signals with a positive or negative slant.
Why is this great news? In many cases, you have more power over your anxiety than you think. By seeing your body's reaction as an objective response, you can make the choice about whether you're going to feel fear or exhilaration.
2. Reappraise Your Anxiety
When you're feeling amped up with anxiety, your first instinct is probably to calm yourself down. But the conventional wisdom of "keep calm and carry on" might not be the best advice when you encounter a potentially stressful situation.
Why? Because trying to relax when your heart and adrenaline are pumping a mile a minute is a tall order. Plus, when people try to chill themselves out, they often do so by resisting or running away from uncomfortable feelings. "Most of us were never taught how to feel our feelings," says Lin, who adds that suppressing emotions doesn't work.
Rather than attempt to take it easy, what if when faced with a heart-pounding scenario, you tried getting pumped about it? It's much easier to transform from feeling anxious to excited since, in both cases, your body is in a heightened state of arousal. So instead of working against your body, just reappraise the feeling you attach to the physical response.
That's what participants did in a 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. Subjects were asked to do a stressful task — either math, singing or public speaking — and those who reinterpreted their pre-performance anxiety as excitement performed better than those who tried to calm down.
So, how do you do it? Tell yourself "I'm excited" or "Get excited." And when your palms and armpits start to sweat, Alpert recommends telling yourself: "Good, my body is ready for this sporting event called life! It will keep me cool under pressure."
The takeaway? "Your fear can be transformed into another emotion if you allow it," says Lin. The way you verbalize your feelings helps to construct how you feel. In essence, you can create your own reality by speaking about your anxiety as positive energy.
3. Adopt an Opportunity Mindset
Any time you feel stressed about something, your body kicks into fight-or-flight mode to handle the perceived danger. This is an automatic response seared into your DNA and it's totally natural, says Stulberg.
But part of successfully transforming your anxious ball of nerves into a force of positive energy involves going from a threat mindset to an opportunity mindset. Rather than seeing fight-or-flight as a threat response, think about it as your body's way of preparing you to slay a challenge.
"Anxiety is just the mind-body system prepping for a great performance," says Stulberg. "If we can channel it toward the task at hand, we can get a lot out of ourselves."
Alpert agrees that it's possible to alter your attitude toward stress from one of dread to one of opportunity. "It's when we feel vulnerable and get out of our comfort zone that growth occurs," he says.
To see anxiety as a road to new possibilities, you might first need to examine the "filter" you use to view the world, says Lin. If your filter is colored with suspicion, fear and worry, it may be preventing you from taking risks and achieving what you want in life. By switching your seeing glass to one of hopefulness and eagerness, you'll be able to recognize an anxiety-provoking situation as a prospect for progress.
Try this: Take an anxious thought ("I'm going to bomb this presentation and stumble over my words.") and give it a positive reversal ("I'm going to use this energy to my advantage. I'll speak louder and more dynamically.")
And for a little extra confidence in the face of anxiety, stick a power pose. A 2018 study published in Psychological Science demonstrated that subjects who commanded high-power stances (expansive postures) felt more powerful than their low-pose counterparts. Basically, standing like Superman or Wonder Woman can help you adopt an opportunity mindset and prepare you to kick butt in stressful situations.
4. Imagine Your Success
During an anxious moment, your brain tends to focus on all the potential negative outcomes of a situation. Within the span of seconds, you can easily drum up every possible worst-case scenario, and then some.
"But, just as our minds can make us worry and feel sick, they can also help us to feel stronger and provide comfort," says Alpert. If it's mighty enough to conjure up fear, it's just as capable of producing positive energy, so put it to good use by visualizing positive outcomes.
A 2018 study published in Frontiers in Psychology demonstrated that guided imagery — the practice of creating calm, peaceful images in your mind — reduced anxiety. It's possible that visualization is so effective because the brain can't distinguish between a real memory and one that's imagined, according to 2012 research in Neuron.
In fact, sports psychologists have been using visualization techniques to help athletes overcome performance anxiety for decades. One 2012 study in Psychiatric Annals showed that athletes who trained by visualizing successful outcomes improved their performance come game day.
Similarly, Stulberg recommends using visualization to prepare yourself for an anxiety-inducing event or any potentially stressful scenario. "If you can visualize a situation, create an anxious state in your mind-body, and then practice in that state, it will be less surprising when the anxiety happens once it's time for your performance."
By engaging in a mental rehearsal, you can feel more relaxed and confident about your ability to meet whatever future challenge you will face.