Embrace the butterflies (Using cognitive reappraisal to turn anxiety into excitement).
Your palms are sweaty, hearts racing, stomach churning, and you need the loo…again!
What are you feeling?
What name would you give the emotion that causes your body to respond this way?
Does it depend on the situation?
Let’s say you’re about to board a plane. You start thinking back to a recent news article about a plane crash. You look up and see a plane that has just taken off. You think, ‘How can that piece of metal just stay in the sky?’, 'I’m putting my life in the hands of these people?’
What emotion do you think you’re feeling now?
Are those sweaty palms and palpitations a representation of fear? anxiety? panic?
What if none of those thoughts were occupying your mind? Instead, you’re thinking ‘In a few hours I’ll be on the beach’. ‘I can’t believe we’re finally on our way’.
Is excitement and anticipation causing the butterflies and jelly legs?
Scientifically, anxiety and excitement have a lot in common. Our nervous system is activated, triggering the fight or flight response, and our bodies get ready to keep us safe. Our heart races so we can run from danger, our palms sweat to keep us cool, and we feel nauseous because our digestion, which is less of a priority in a life-or-death situation, slows down.
The relaxation response is the opposite. Our bodies go into a state of rest and digest, our heart rate slows, blood pressure returns to normal and the butterflies fly away. Yet often, when we’re feeling anxious, we tell ourselves to calm down. That’s quite an ask of our bodies at that point in time. Usually, our bodies reset to rest and digest when the danger disappears, and this is difficult to achieve when we are facing something anxiety provoking.
However, what if we embrace the physical sensations but change the meaning? Flip the coin. After all, have a read back of the two examples above.
What’s the only difference between them?
We’re not doing anything different.
We’re feeling the same physical sensations.
The only difference is what’s going through our mind, our interpretation or perception of the situation!
Therefore, it is a natural conclusion that changing anxiety to excitement (uncomfortable arousal to an alternative state of arousal) is less of a jump than trying to change our anxiety to a state of calm and relaxation (uncomfortable arousal to rest and digest).
(Note: This is not to say we should never feel fear or anxiety. There are times it’s not just normal, but necessary and helpful e.g. you’re out walking and a neighborhood dog who’s known to be vicious has escaped the garden and starts chasing you. In this instance standing still telling yourself you’re excited is unlikely to be a sensible move!).
Think about your first day in a new job. If you’re thinking, ‘what if I’m late?’, or ‘what if I get everything wrong?’, you’re likely to be anxious. Alternatively, if you’re thinking ‘this could be such a good opportunity for me’, and focusing on the new friends you could make, you may be feeling more exhilarated at the prospect of getting started.
What about the different emotions of people about to board a rollercoaster, or about to get up and sing karaoke?
(In fact, there was a study in 2014 where participants were asked to re-name performance anxiety as excitement. Just before getting up to sing Journeys song ‘Don’t stop believin’ (I love that song), they were asked to say out loud either ‘I’m anxious’, ‘I’m excited’, or to say nothing at all. Using computers to measure pitch and volume, the participants who had reaffirmed their excitement all sang better, despite all being nervous beforehand (I need to try this).
So, how can we start reappraising our emotions?
It can be as simple as re-labelling the emotion, calling it excitement. We can even say it out loud to reaffirm it further.
We can think ‘What may someone else be thinking in this situation?’.
Maybe, take a step back and challenge the thoughts you’re having in this situation. What are the more realistic alternatives?
Visualize a more positive scenario.
Notice the sensations and ask, is it really as bad as it feels? (When feeling anxious the palpitations and racing heart can feel very scary. What if we run up a few flights of stairs and experience the same feelings? Do we experience this differently?)
Really, all we’re doing to change our anxiety to excitement is focusing on what could go right, instead of what could go wrong. We're no longer focusing all our time and energy on trying to chase the butterflies away.