Let’s say you’re about to give a speech and you start to notice your heart beating faster and your face getting slightly flushed. Do you interpret these feelings as anxiety, or as a positive state? As it turns out how you interpret feelings of arousal helps determine how you feel and how you ultimately perform.
One study had participants who were preparing to take the GRE, take a practice test in a lab. Half the participants were given no instructions, while the other half were told that arousal improves performance. The specific message read:
People think that feeling anxious while taking a standardized test will make them do poorly on the test. However, recent research suggests that arousal doesn’t hurt performance on these tests and can even help performance… people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better. This means that you shouldn’t feel concerned if you do feel anxious while taking today’s GRE test. If you find yourself feeling anxious, simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.
The researchers found that the group that heard the message worried less, felt less unsure of themselves, and felt like they performed better on the test. This also translated into actual results, with the reappraisal group performing significantly better on the math section of the GRE. Even more strikingly, performance on the math section was also significantly better on the actual test roughly 3 months later.
Another study also found that participants who positively construed arousal showed less shame and anxiety, less negative body language and performed better on a speech.
Why It Works:
Researchers from another study said:
When people believe they possess sufficient resources to cope with stressors they experience a challenge response, but when situational demands are seen as exceeding resources individuals experience threat…In stressful situations signs of increased arousal (e.g., racing heart) are frequently construed as anxiety, nervousness, or fear. These negative appraisals encourage people to perceive demands as exceeding resources, triggering a maladaptive threat response.
Other researchers added,
Although both states are accompanied by sympathetic activation, challenge is characterized by improved cardiac efficiency and dilation of the peripheral vasculature, whereas threat decreases cardiac efficiency and constricts the vasculature in anticipation of damage or defeat. Commonly held beliefs suggest that arousal experienced during stress is bad, but sympathetic activation may actually be greater during approach-motivated challenge states than during threat states.
Here’s how the process looks graphically:
Back to that speech… if you appraised the increased heart beat and flushing as a negative stress response, you’re likely to get nervous and set off a cascade a negative thoughts and feelings. If instead, you interpreted the arousal as your body preparing you for a higher level of performance, your confidence is likely to grow and you’ll ultimately perform better.
Arousal/ stress isn’t always bad. This study shows that seeing arousal in a positive light is likely to make you less stressed and will allow you to perform at a higher level.
Beltzer, Miranda L., et al. “Rethinking butterflies: The affective, physiological, and performance effects of reappraising arousal during social evaluation.”Emotion 14.4 (2014): 761.
Jamieson, Jeremy P., Matthew K. Nock, and Wendy Berry Mendes. “Mind over matter: reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 141.3 (2012): 417.
Jamieson, Jeremy P., et al. “Turning the knots in your stomach into bows: Reappraising arousal improves performance on the GRE.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 46.1 (2010): 208-212.
Jamieson, Jeremy P., Wendy Berry Mendes, and Matthew K. Nock. “Improving acute stress responses the power of reappraisal.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 22.1 (2013): 51-56.