Anxious @ Work? 90% of People Get This Wrong!


The Year Was 1976

I was a kid growing up in the small town in of Mishawaka, Indiana. My dad worked as a union plumber at one of the two remaining large manufacturing plants. We called it “Dodges” though technically I suppose it was the Dodge Manufacturing Facility. One day just after Thanksgiving that year, my dad came home from work and as I sat at the kitchen table he handed me an envelope. I peered inside and there were three tickets. Inspecting them I saw that one was for a hot dog, another for a pop (or soda, or coke depending where you are from) and the last one for admission. Admission where you ask?

Hold your breath…

Rainbow Roller Rink!

It was the annual Christmas party for the Dodge worker’s kids. Up until now I had only been able to go to the Christmas movie party the company sponsored.

But this was the year.

I was at the age where I graduated to the roller rink party! It was a rite of passage. The older cool kids got to go to the roller skating party. Now I was one of them. You can see from the picture of the place why I was so excited. By the way, this is an actual picture of the building which hasn’t changed a lick on the outside, except now it’s a bingo hall instead of a roller rink.

Once inside, I put on my skates which was awesome because now I was good 3 inches taller at least until everyone else put on theirs. I met some new friends and we skated around in circles weaving in-between other kids, we went too fast, and occasionally got the whistle blown at us as a warning to slow down or we would be put in the penalty box. About twenty minutes in, one of my friends came back from getting a drink of water and tells me about Judy (name changed to protect the innocent and my embarrassment) and how she likes me and wants to ‘slow skate’.

Before I know it, the lights dim down, the spotlight hits the mirror ball and the song “If You Leave Me Now” by Chicago starts playing.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

In a moment of supreme confidence and excessive prodding from friends, I ask Judy to skate. She says yes, and the following 4 minutes we skate around holding hands, my heart is racing, my breath is fast, I’m feeling clammy, and my stomach is in knots.

It was amazing.

To this day I can’t hear that song without thinking about roller skating.

Fast Forward – The Year is 2014

Again it is the winter season, but this time I am in my car next to a small but beautiful park just south of downtown Minneapolis. The massive flakes of snow glide gently down in what could not have been a more picturesque scene. Ahead and to my left is my destination – the Pillsbury Mansion. Inside the gracious owners of this home are hosting local and state politicians, media leaders, CEOs of local businesses and other luminaries for an informal dinner event with the Mexican ambassador to the United States. Through a tortured series of circumstances and my own big mouth, I’m to attend and represent my company at this event but I’m also to tasked with finding a one on one an opportunity to talk with the ambassador about a project we have going on in his country.

Now if you recall the story above, I’m from a blue collar background. Hanging out with politicians and ambassadors is not my thing. How does one address an ambassador? Was I supposed to bring a gift of some sort or would that constitute a bribe? Fortunately, the State Department website answered some of these questions (for future reference, the options for addressing this position are “Mr./Mrs. Ambassador” or “Your Excellency”). Some of my DC colleagues were also helpful and thankfully one warned me to have a question at the ready because after the ambassador’s remarks we would likely have the opportunity to publicly address him.

Still outside, I watched as others arrived. Taking a deep breath, I left my car and approached the house. Here it was many years later, and those same roller rink feelings – the racing heart, fast breathing, clammy hands, and knotted stomach are all there just as strong as ever. The exception this time was that it wasn’t an amazing feeling, it was awful.

So what’s going on here? My physical reactions in both situations were the same (minus Peter Cetera in the background), but the way I felt about each of the events was very different. Fortunately, science can help explain this and even better, this same science provides the secret to instantly transform an anxious situation into an exciting opportunity.

Time for the Cool Brain-Hacking Science

Jane McGonigal writes in SuperBetter

  • “If we notice these physical sensations, we may start to rack our brains for something specific to be nervous about… But without a conscious story about what might go wrong next, these symptoms are just physical sensations. They become an emotional feeling of anxiety only when we actively start to imagine terrible things happening in the future.”

This is called the misattribution of arousal first reported back in 1962 by Schacter and Singer (reference: Cognitive, social, and physiological determinants of emotional state. Psychological Review, Vol 69(5), Sep 1962, 379-399.). In 2013, Alison Wood Brooks built on this much earlier work by realizing that anxiety and excitement are what are called arousal congruent – that is they are both high arousal states that feel essentially identical – that the misattribution phenomenon could be used to transform one feeling to another through very simple means. In other words, instead of trying to transform an anxious state (high arousal) to calm sate (low arousal), Brooks believed it would be easier to transform anxiety to excitement since they are both high arousal states. [reference:].

Brooks conducted a series of experiments first validating that over 90% of people currently believe that the best advice to managing an anxious situation is to “try to calm down”. Her next three experiments included hundreds of participants randomized usually to one of three conditions, a neutral condition, a group that verbally declared “I am [calm]/[anxious]”, and a final group declaring “I am excited” before a given task. Prior to and during each task, Heart Rate was monitored to determine arousal state. The experimental tasks included singing in front of a group, giving an impromptu public speech, and completing a series of complicated math problems.

In each outcome not only did the participants who declared “I am excited” report a greater belief of self-efficacy but their actual task performance and outcome was statically better than the “calm/anxious” and control groups. Specifically, the Karoke singers had an 80% accuracy rate versus the neutral group at 69%. But take a look at the “anxious” group. Their accuracy rate was only 53% – this shows how detrimental negative self-talk can be.

In the public speaking task, participants were video recorded. These recordings were then shown to an independent group of assessors who were unaware of the experimental conditions (that is they had no idea what group the participants on the video recordings were in.) The assessors rated participants on their persuasiveness, competence, confidence, and persistence.  The “I am excited” group statistically outperformed the “I am calm” group in every category.

In the math task, even though the arousal state / heart rate remained high during the exam for every condition, the “excited” group statistically got more math problems correct. This shows that high arousal can be transformed from a negative to a very powerful state and attempts to ‘be calm’ are ineffective at changing arousal.

In her final experiment, Brooks evaluated the psychological reasons as to why the attribution shift from anxiety to excitement works. The results of her research indicate that shifting attribution creates a shift from Threat mindset to an Opportunity mindset. As such, after one first reappraises their internal state “I am excited” they then can more easily reappraise their external situation as an opportunity instead of feeling threatened.

Conclusion and “I” vs “You”

Brooks research suggests that anxiety is best managed through a misattribution shift from anxiety to the arousal congruent state of excitement. The way to do this is through verbalizing “I am Excited” and/or “Get Excited” and internalizing the belief through this self-talk.

While this may seem too simple to work, substantial sports psychology research exists in support of self-talk and subsequent enhanced outcomes and performance. In addition, recent research from Dolcos and Albarracin (reference: suggests, that use of second person (“You”) versus first person (“I”) during self-talk creates event greater outcomes.

Putting these two pieces of research together, using “You are Excited” may be even more powerful than “I am Excited” in helping transform anxiety into excitement state.

So the next time you are feeling that cold clammy, heart racing, stomach knotting feeling of anxiety don’t “Keep Calm and Carry On” instead GET EXCITED!


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