The Opportunity Mindset: Spinning Anxiety Into Gold

The day before my daughter started first grade this year, she announced that she was “so excited and so nervous.” These two emotions may seem contradictory, but in fact our bodies register excitement and anxiety the same way: with an increased heart rate and a surge of cortisol.

It’s our minds that perceive these emotions differently.

Anxiety fills our minds with dread and makes us want to run away from a situation.

Excitement fills our minds with anticipation and makes us want to run toward a situation.

In school, excitement motivates students to learn while anxiety often paralyzes them.

But there’s a simple, research-based strategy that can help students (and adults) when they feel a surge of anxiety. It involves reframing the anxiety as excitement. Put simply: When you feel your heart start to race, tell yourself, “I am excited.”

This technique was highlighted in an article in The Atlantic called “Can Three Words Turn Anxiety into Success?” Here’s an excerpt:

When most people feel anxious, they likely tell themselves to just relax. “When asked, ‘how do you feel about your upcoming speech?’, most people will say, ‘I’m so nervous, I’m trying to calm down,’” said Alison Wood Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied the phenomenon. She cites the ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters as partial evidence. But that might be precisely the wrong advice, she said.

Brooks notes that it’s easier for us to move from anxiety to excitement than it is to move from anxiety to calmness.

There’s research to back up Brooks’ assertions. In one experiment, participants were asked to sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” in front of a group. Anxiety provoking, right? The participants were instructed to say either, “I am anxious,” “I am excited,” or nothing before their performance. The results?

The “excited” participants not only felt more excited, 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.

Researchers found similar results when they asked people to give a speech on camera — or to take a math test! Saying “I am excited” boosted performance.

Excited Middle School students in Mr. Baker’s Humanities class.

These three words did not change participants’ biological response to the situation. They still had high heart rates and a surge of hormones. But rather than interpreting this as a negative emotion, 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.

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.

Every student has different anxiety triggers. When faced with rappelling a cliff or climbing a ladder, some students will feel calm, some will feel their heart race and interpret it as anxiety, and some will feel their heart race and interpret it as excitement.

Imagine the powerful benefits of helping middle school students reframe their school-related anxieties so that they can replace the thought “I am nervous” with the thought “I am excited,” whether that’s in relation to:

  • speaking up in class
  • making a presentation
  • sharing their writing
  • asking for help
  • performing on stage
  • taking a test
  • tackling a big project
  • playing in a sports game, or
  • taking a risk on an assignment.

Thoughts are powerful, and if we teach students to train themselves to reframe anxiety as excitement, they may be able to face challenges with greater confidence.

I am reminded of the wisdom Frances Hodgson Burnett offered over 100 years ago in her classic children’s story The Secret Garden: “Much more surprising things can happen to anyone who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time and push it out by putting in an agreeable, determinedly courageous one. Two things cannot be in one place.”