Learn to Use Stress to Your Advantage
Association executives often have to give presentations to large groups. But just imagine if you are so anxious about the talk that your heart starts pounding, your palms start sweating and your mouth suddenly becomes dry as sandpaper. What is the best thing to do in this moment? Would it be wiser to try to calm down, or should you stay in the moment and turn that nervous energy into genuine excitement? Harvard Business School Professor Alison Wood Brooks asked hundreds of people this question, and the responses were almost unanimous: 91 percent thought that the best course of action was to try to calm down.

Brooks designed an experiment to find out if this is true. She recruited 140 people to give a speech. She told some of the group to relax and to calm their nerves by saying to themselves, “I am calm.” The others were instructed to embrace their anxiety and tell themselves, “I am excited!” She determined that the participants who had told themselves “I am excited” felt better able to handle the pressure and were more confident of their ability to give a good speech. Furthermore, observers who rated the various talks found the excited speakers generally more persuasive, confident and competent than the participants who had attempted to calm their nerves.

The Harvard research is part of a growing body of study showing the best way to handle stress is to embrace it instead of minimizing it. “We're bombarded with information about how bad stress is,” said Jeremy Jamieson, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who specializes in stress. But, according to Jamieson, the conventional view does not appreciate the numerous ways in which physical and psychological tension can help people perform better. In research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2010, Jamieson tested his theory with college students who were preparing to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which is used for admission to Ph.D. programs. He invited 60 students to take a practice GRE and collected saliva samples from them beforehand to get baseline measures of their levels of alpha-amylase, a hormonal indicator of stress. He told them that the goal of the study was to examine how the physiological stress response affects performance. He then gave half the students a brief pep talk to help them rethink their pre-exam nervousness. “Recent research suggests that stress doesn’t hurt performance on these tests and can even help performance,” he said. “People who feel anxious during a test might actually do better…. If you find yourself feeling anxious, simply remind yourself that your stress could be helping you do well.” Students who received the pep talk scored higher on the practice exam than those in the control group.

Researchers in a German study also showed that a positive view of anxiety can make you less likely to burn out in a demanding job. In a 2014 study, researchers at Jacobs University in Germany followed mid-career physicians and teachers for one year to see if their views on this issue influenced their well-being on the job. At the beginning, the doctors and teachers were asked if they saw anxiety as harmful or a helpful feeling, providing energy and motivation. At the end, the report found that those who saw their anxiety as helpful were less likely to be burned out, frustrated or drained by their work.

So what is the takeaway from these studies? Embrace your nerves! (05/15/15)
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