Use Stress to your Advantage – How Arousal Reappraisal can help you Manage Stress
25th January 2017
One hour before presenting my research findings at my first conference I was, quite understandably, very nervous. “What if I fall flat on my face walking up to the podium?”, “what if I forget my presentation?”, “what if the power point slides don’t display correctly?” The “what ifs” raced around my head like a whirlwind.
My heart was pounding, my legs and hands were shaky and I felt a little sick.
My stress response had well and truly kicked in.
The stress response is the body’s way of preparing for an imminent threat. It’s a survival mechanism.
When our stress response switches on we go into ‘fight or flight mode’. Our body is flooded with hormones like adrenalin and cortisol. Our blood becomes thick and sticky. Our senses become heightened. Our muscles tense up and our blood pressure increases.
There are other things going on as well. The amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response, is very active during this time. The pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher order thinking, like decision making, is however, pretty quiet. This makes sense because when you’re trying to swim away from a shark for example, you’re not going to be concerned about what you’re going to make for dinner that night. You just want to get the hell out of the water!
The problem is, however, that our brains can’t tell the difference between an upcoming conference presentation and a shark. This means that when the stress response is switched on; when we feel acute stress, it can be very difficult to perform at our best.
Me going through all the ‘what ifs’ in my head was actually making me more stressed, which in turn was switching on the stress response. Ironically this was going to make it more likely that I would in fact fall flat on my face, forget my presentation or not be able to think clearly enough to get my point across.
My supervisor, who was always full of wise and helpful advice, was with me on that day. She could see that I was quite clearly freaking out. In response she told me something that immediately turned things around. What she didn’t say was equally important. She didn’t tell me to calm down. And she didn’t tell me to take deep breathes.
She told me that physiologically there is no difference between fear and excitement. It’s how we interpret the symptoms that make it so. My pounding heart was not fear of failure at all. It was in fact excitement that I get to communicate my research and make a difference.
This message made such a difference to me because it helped me interpret the arousal symptoms as signs that I was excited rather than signs that I was going to fail. This was not my body responding to threat. This was my body responding to a challenge and opportunity.
Once I changed my perspective. I still felt my heart pounding but I felt so much better. I felt more confident and less anxious.
Turns out the science backs this up! It’s called Arousal Reappraisal.
Brooks conducted a series of experiments in 2014 to demonstrate the power of arousal reappraisal. In the first study, participants were asked to sing Karaoke in front a stranger. And Yes! Of course the song was from Glee and No there was no alcohol involved. Before the task, participants were asked to say to themselves either “I am excited”, “I am anxious” or nothing.
Brooks found that those who told themselves they were excited were more likely to report feeling excited about the task. This group also performed the song more accurately then those who were told to say nothing or to say that they were anxious. A word of wisdom if you’re thinking about entering The Voice people!!
Further to this, in a similar experiment Brooks found that participants, who were told to say to themselves they were excited before giving a 2 to 3 minute video taped speech, were more likely to report feeling excited, spoke for longer and were evaluated by independent raters as being more persuasive and competent than those who were told to tell themselves that they were calm.
So the next time you feel anxious about an upcoming meeting, interview or public speaking engagement, try interpreting your nervousness as excitement rather than anxiety. On the flip side, if you see or speak to someone and they are feeling stressed about an event it might not do them any good to tell them to calm down. Instead tell them to ‘get excited!’.
It also pays to remember that stress isn’t always a bad thing. A little bit of stress can motivate us and help us perform at our best. Stress can also save our lives. It is a functional and an adaptive response to a challenging situation. Making stress work for us is a matter of evaluating our physiological symptoms in a positive way. So rather than thinking our stress is telling us to be afraid, that we can’t do it and that we will fail. Remind yourself that your stress is giving you courage, strength and motivation.
So how did my presentation go? Well five minutes before I had to go up on stage, my pants split. Yep a big split right down the back of my pants.
I tied a jumper around myself, got up there and smashed my presentation. You will too!
To learn more about Arousal Reappraisal:
Brooks, A. W. (2014). Excited: Reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 11, 1144-1158.
Jamieson, J. P., Mendes, W. B., & Nock, M. K. (2013). Improving acute stress responses: The power of reappraisal. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 51–56.