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Debunking “Keep Calm”: How a Little Anxiety Helps You Perform

If you have an upcoming interview or presentation in front of your colleagues, the best advice is not to "keep calm and carry on," despite popular wisdom.

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If you have an upcoming interview or presentation in front of your colleagues, the best advice is not to “keep calm and carry on,” despite popular wisdom. Harvard business researchers say that stoking your anxiety can create an infectious enthusiasm among your audience. In fact, anxiety and excitement amount to the similar emotional states. “Both emotions are high-arousal, signaled by a racing heart, sweaty palms, and high levels of the stress hormone cortisol.” Studies show that people perform better when they assign those sensations a positive meaning, calling them “excitement,” rather than “stress” or “anxiety.”

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In an experiment conducted by social scientist Alison Wood Brooks, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, individuals were asked to perform a “high-stress” activity like singing karaoke, giving a speech, or completing a difficult math problem. Participants who were instructed to read instructions on how to get excited before doing their task performed better than those who said they were feeling calm or anxious. “In the public-speaking experiment, independent judges found that excited people seemed more persuasive, competent, persistent, and confident.”

Read more at Harvard Magazine


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