Can you transform complex emotions with one mental switch?
I am queuing for a roller coaster, my chest feels tight and I am becoming more apprehensive by the second. Standing beside me is my daughter, positively bursting with anticipation and excitement. On board the ride, we begin the ascent to the first peak. We both sense the intensity of the situation: hearts racing, muscles tensed and stomachs full of butterflies. Yet we are feeling opposite emotions. As someone who used to experience panic attacks, it makes sense that I dislike any activity that creates similar bodily sensations – the debilitating nature of fear. But I find it difficult to understand the delight of my thrill-seeking daughter, who is enjoying these reactions. Why is it that one person can emotionally feel so different from another when they are experiencing the same sensations?
IT’S NOT WHAT YOU FEEL, BUT HOW YOU RESPOND
Excitement and fear are in fact closely intertwined in the brain. They share the same physiological reaction: the adrenaline that courses through the body when a person is scared is the same as when they are excited. The difference is not how the body reacts, but how the mind interprets the experience. My daughter decided she was going to enjoy the ride – and she did. I chose (subconsciously) to have a bad time. And I hated it. Cause and effect.
The mind, however, is a wonderful thing. Imagine if you could reframe fear as excitement, self-sabotage would be less likely and there would be room for more achievements. The good news? This can be done. You can use the power to choose how you approach life’s experiences and challenges, feel the freedom of not being limited by fear and understand that potential also exists on the other side of your comfort zone.
Take another situation: public speaking. Some people are in total control and speak with confidence and passion whereas others are terrified, their minds go blank and they want the experience to end as soon as possible. It takes self-belief – to be able to be fearless and fully embrace the experience. It’s far from easy for many people to do this even if they mentally prepare themselves using relaxation techniques.
But there’s another, somewhat counterintuitive, approach that has proven effective for some in challenging situations. It is not to resist fear but to welcome it. Blocking out or ignoring undesirable sensations – even trying to calm down – can be counterproductive. Fear is not the enemy. Instead, you can use this nervous energy effectively to drive you forward and bring out your best performance.
A CHALLENGE FOR THE MIND
In her study, Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement, Harvard Business School Professor Alison Wood Brooks explored how people who told themselves to get excited rather than to relax before a difficult challenge improved their performance. They did this by concentrating on how well things could go rather than worrying about what might go wrong. ‘When felt immediately before or during a task, anxiety drains working memory capacity, decreases self-confidence, and harms performance,’ explains the professor. ‘Anticipating the negative consequences of feeling anxious, many individuals attempt to down-regulate anxiety by trying to calm down. But decreasing anxious feelings is difficult because high arousal is automatic, and suppressing or hiding anxiety is often ineffective.’
By challenging yourself it is possible to thrive, especially when you achieve a goal in spite of your fear. You can also begin to feel and fulfill your potential. This in turn can improve confidence, competence and self-image. The mind eventually becomes used to the idea and it doesn’t feel threatened any more. Bottom line: fake it until you become it.
Managing fear in any way requires significant mental effort and it is a big challenge, but transforming the emotion is a mind power. If the ‘anxious reappraisal’ technique makes excitement the mastery of fear, helping you to overcome anxiety and achieve more, then it can affect your professional and personal life for the better. You can take charge of your brain and go from fear to personal empowerment, courage and optimism, just by changing the way you interpret the sensations and rename your emotions. Yes, it’s possible to shift fear into excitement. If you convince your brain to perceive situations differently, you can finally see challenges not threats, solutions not problems, opportunities not obstacles – and fun, not nasty situations. So next time I go to a theme park, it will be an opportunity to expand my comfort zone and my capability. I may let go of the fear and see the fun of it all after all…