This week I have two close friends who are facing career-defining exams. Both of my friends are approaching this with understandable anxiety. It was appropriate, then, that I forwarded each a copy of “Feeling Anxious? Why Trying to Keep Calm is a Terrible Idea” published in the Fast Company daily blog on December 2, 2013. Each day the blog gives several practical, brief articles relating to leadership and career issues. Anyone can subscribe for free at www.fastcompany.com.
The article sent to my friends describes highly visible, boldly-fonted World War II signs that were posted all over Britain. The message, Keep Calm And Carry On encouraged war-ravaged British people to try keeping calm and going about their normal activities even when bombs were dropping almost every night. That’s a terrible idea says the Fast Company writer because staying cool under pressure “totally misses the way emotions work. Anxiety is an automatic physiological arousal in the presence of potential danger. Keeping calm is a cognitive response that rarely works in the presence of physical arousal. “Since arousal is so automatic, it’s hard to control….very, very difficult to do successfully especially leading up to very anxiety-inducing tasks” or experiences.
A better solution is to get excited. This lets the body stay in an amped-up physiological state while the mind goes to something better that focuses away from the fear. In a Harvard study of public speakers nervous about an important speech, subjects who told themselves to get excited performed better: “they gave more persuasive, competent, and persuasive speeches” than those who tried to calm down or others who did nothing to deal with the anxiety.
In reading, I wondered if this is a variation of the power of positive thinking. I wondered, too, if this would have worked with Londoners, told to get excited during the Battle of Britain. Nevertheless, the researcher noted that anxiety distracts us from focusing on real solutions and functioning effectively. Other emotions let us focus on what needs to be done to get past the anxious situations.
What do you think? Please comment.