Calmness is also positive, meanwhile, but it’s also low on arousal. For most people, it takes less effort for the brain to jump from charged-up, negative feelings to charged-up, positive ones, Brooks said, than it would to get from charged-up and negative to positive and chill. In other words, its easier to convince yourself to be excited than calm when you’re anxious.
Brooks discovered this for herself by performing a series of three experiments for a study published in 2014. After rounding up her participants, she surprised them with a series of tasks that most people find at least a little bit anxiety-inducing.
First, they were asked to sing the song “Don’t Stop Believin” by the band Journey in front of the group. (“I chose ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ as the target song because it can be performed easily in three different octaves,” Brooks wrote. It “was also the 21st most downloaded song in iTunes history and tends to be extremely familiar to English speakers.”)
The participants were then told to either say “I am anxious,” “I am excited,” or nothing before they broke into song. The “excited” participants not only felt more excited, and they also sang better, according to a computerized measurement of volume and pitch. Their on-and-on-and-ons were just more, well, on—perhaps because the participants themselves were.
The same was true of a speech test. When asked to give a two-minute speech on camera, the excited participants spoke longer and were seen as more persuasive, confident, and persistent. Then came a math test, in which the excited participants similarly outperformed a group that was told to remain calm.
Surprisingly, though, the excitement reappraisal didn't actually make the subjects less anxious, nor did it lower their heart rate. That’s because the underlying anxiety was the same—it was just reframed as excitement.
The way this works, Brooks said, is by putting people in an “opportunity mindset,” with a focus on all the good things that can happen if you do well, as opposed to a “threat mindset,” which dwells on all the consequences of performing poorly.
In 2010, the University of Rochester’s Jeremy Jamieson similarly found that reframing anxiety as a positive thing could help people do better on the math section of the GRE standardized test. In his study, subjects were just told that anxiety could improve performance—they didn’t even have to say that they were excited.
And another study published last year asked people to list goals they had that were in conflict with one another. (So, for example, training for a marathon and finishing an ambitious project.) Some participants were asked to say the phrase “I am excited” out loud to themselves three times, while others just said their names. Those who reappraised their anxiety as excitement felt they had more time on their hands to complete their goals.