Do you embrace excitement or remain calm in stressful situations?

Today is January 17 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “do you embrace excitement or remain calm in stressful situations?” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill noted “You can measure a man's character by the choices he makes under pressure.” Today’s reflection focuses on that moment in a stressful situation where you must decide. The art of living well requires us to examine how we make decisions in general, but also the thinking involved when we are placed in a stressful situation. One technique that people use is known as reappraisal.

Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks designed an experiment to find out if telling people to calm down during a stressful moment was beneficial. In her research paper “Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement,” published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, she recruited 140 people to give a speech. She told part of the group to relax and repeat the phrase “I am calm,” while the others were told to embrace their anxiety and tell themselves, “I am excited.” Members of both groups were still nervous before the speech, but the participants who had told themselves “I am excited” felt better able to handle the pressure, were more confident of their ability to give a compelling talk and received higher approval ratings from the audience.

The excited speakers were found to be more persuasive, confident, and competent than the participants who had tried to calm down. By changing the mindset just slightly, from “calm down” to “I am excited,” the speakers had transformed their anxiety into energy that helped them to perform under pressure. In commenting on Brooks' study Julia Weiland wrote “In Brooks’s study, she discusses the cognitive process required to go from a state of anxiety to a state of calmness. The process is called ‘reappraisal.’

Dr. Iris Mauss, an associate professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and director of the Emotion and Emotion Regulation Lab on campus, describes reappraisal as “reframing an emotional event in order to modulate one’s experience of negative or positive emotion.” In other words, when a person changes the way they think about a situation to change their emotions toward it, they are reappraising their emotions.” As Brooks noted: “Individuals can reappraise anxiety as excitement using minimal strategies such as self-talk (e.g., saying “I am excited” out loud) or simple messages (e.g., “get excited”), which lead them to feel more excited, adopt an opportunity mind-set (as opposed to a threat mind-set), and improve their subsequent performance.” This reappraising approach can help individuals avoid choking, or failing, during a stressful event.

In her book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, Sian Beilock, Ph.D., suggests that choking can occur when people think too much about activities that are usually automatic and suffer from “paralysis by analysis.” Unfortunately, people also choke under pressure when they are not devoting enough attention to what they are doing and rely on simple or incorrect routines. Moreover, Paul Sullivan’s work Clutch: Excel Under Pressure highlights five key traits of clutch performers who succeeded under pressure: focus, discipline, adaptability, being truly present, and having the fear and desire to win. “According to Sullivan, clutch performance does not stem from an innate ability. It's a learned skill-the art of operating in high- stress situations as if they were everyday conditions. Even some of the most experienced and talented performers lack this skill-but Sullivan shows that anyone can develop it.”

Professor Geir Jordet from the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences examined the pressure that soccer players face during penalty shots. Jordet examined the film footage of almost 400 kicks from penalty shootouts during major tournaments and found that players need to take their time. Using the film footage, Jordet timed exactly how long players took to place the ball on the penalty spot. Those who took less than a second scored 58 percent of the time, compared with 80 percent when they didn’t rush it and took longer than a second. Adjusting to the pressure of a penalty shot takes time, so players who adapt practice that habit.

Do you embrace excitement or remain calm in stressful situations?