The night before my son started Kindergarten, he called me in after lights out. “I’m a little bit excited and a LOT terrified.”
Kids may perceive these two emotions on the opposite ends of the spectrum. What does fear have to do with excitement? As it turns out, our bodies experience excitement and anxiety in nearly identical ways: both are states of arousal. Our hearts race and a surge of cortisol gets us ready to act.
So what’s the difference between these emotions? How we interpret our physiological reactions.
Think about it like this. Two kids are getting ready to go on stage. Both have a fluttering stomach and sweaty palms. The one who had success last time they were on stage — who experienced applause — interprets that feeling as excitement.
But what about the child who has never stood in front of an audience before? Or the one who froze up the last time they were on stage? They will likely interpret their fluttery stomach as anxiety.
This matters because our instinctive reaction to anxiety is to flee (or avoid) facing a situation. Excitement, in contrast, pushes us in the other direction — we want to run toward an opportunity.
That’s why helping kids and teens reframe anxiety as excitement — especially in a performative situation such as before a game, performance, interview, or test — may be more efficacious than helping them try to “calm down.”
In 2014, Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks conducted a study, testing the theory that it’s easier for us to move from anxiety to excitement than it is to move from anxiety to calmness. In one experiment, participants were asked to sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” in front of a group. Obviously, this is a task most people would not relish. Before they took the stage, participants were instructed to say to themselves either a) “I am anxious,” b) “I am excited,” or c) nothing.
According to one write-up: “The ‘excited’ participants not only felt more excited, they also sang better, according to a computerized measurement of volume and pitch. . . 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.”
Somehow, saying three words — “I am excited” — boosted performance.
These three words did not change participants’ biological responses to the situation. They still had high heart rates and a surge of hormones. But rather than interpreting this feeling as a negative, people interpreted these responses as a positive emotion. Instead of running away from a challenge, they ran toward the challenge. What changed was their mindset.
Brooks notes that self-talk was able to put participants in either an “opportunity mindset” (a focus on good possible outcomes) or a “threat mindset” (a focus on the consequences of poor outcomes).
A couple of years ago, I shared this research with some high school students — a population well acquainted with anxiety! They were intrigued, partly because it seemed like such an easy intervention. If this works even a little bit, one girl said, it is worth a try.
A few days after this conversation, I found a student in the hallway practicing a speech she was about to give in front of the entire student body — a presentation she had both volunteered to give, but which had been keeping her up at night with worry.
“I’m practicing saying ‘I’m excited. I’m excited to share this information. I’m excited the principal trusted me to do it. I’m excited to get up there and do my thing!” She still had butterflies, she told me, but she was no longer dreading going on stage. She actually felt, well, just a little excited.