When was the last time you were really excited? Spring Break? New job? Grant application accepted? Disney Land? Did you get butterflies in your stomach?
Excitement is one of those emotions that makes life really worth living. But sometimes, it can leave us anxious.
Most people who know me often describe me as an excited person — someone who looks forward to outings and adventures, games and socializing, or the next adventure. I’m also a planner who looks forward to “what’s next?” Planning and ruminating over the next vacation, the next career move, or the next project, all give me a high. This excitement, I’d say, is what drives me.
Yet with every “next” that I feel excited about, I have to deal with the anxiousness of applying and “waiting”. Applying isn’t so bad — but its the waiting period which is the worst. Waiting is debilitating and all-consuming. Whether it’s the visa application, the job application or the grant application, waiting drives me insane. The same flutters in my stomach now make me sick. My heart flutters. My body shakes. My breathing becomes shallow. The worst is that my mind — which can be very unkind — sentences me to hours of worry.
And in that small instance, my excitement turns into anxiety.
Excitement and Anxiety: Two Sides of the Coin
Emotions can be described as vectors on a two-dimensional plane, with one component known as Arousal and the other, Valance. Arousal is the component that has to do with the physical and physiological effects. Arousal is also automatic: it’s a function of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is always looking out for danger. Since arousal is so automatic, it’s hard to control.
Both anxiety and excitement share the same Arousal component, i.e the same, strong physiological responses. The stomach sensations (“butterflies in the stomach”), trembling, weakness, and sweaty palms all are responses to a state of fear or excitement. These are the body’s complex responses to a mental condition.
Valence, on the other hand, is cognitive: it’s the way you interpret all that physiological stuff happening inside you–how you feel about your feelings. Here, anxiety and excitement differ. So whereas anxiety and excitement share the same physical symptoms, the way we perceive these symptoms differs. In other words, if we recognize the fluttery feelings as positive, we’ll feel excited. If we see them as negative, we’ll feel anxious.
Both emotions emerge from a lack of control or uncertainty. Excitement suggests that this uncertain future is something to look forward to, whereas anxiety suggests it’s something to be worried or fearful about. If you can try to rationalize this the next time you are anxious, you can change your fears into opportunities.
Tell yourself: Anxiety is NOT a disorder
For one reason or the other, we have all made anxiety out to be the bad guy, and this approach tends to make the symptoms of anxiety worse. Each time we get anxious, we try to avoid the feeling, try to “calm ourselves,” or try to ruminate over what’s wrong with us. To make matters worse, the medical community around us has villanized anxiety to the extent of calling it a “disorder,” in many cases, over-medicating for it.
Not discounting real clinical anxiety disorders and mania — but a lot of anxiety comes from the fear of anxiety itself and mild anxious symptoms. We get more anxious from feeling anxious — or even excited. When excitement gives us the same feelings of arousal, our mind suddenly panics and perceives these feelings to be negative. The very moment we get that butterfly feeling in our stomach, we go down a rabbit hole, our mind wanders into negative thinking. We tell ourselves we should avoid this feeling.
If we keep trying to “fix” our anxiety — we are ultimately trying to dull our emotions instead of learning to accept them as normal or channeling them into a more productive pathway. What used to be thought of as normal grieving, a sensitive personality or an emotional reaction to an unanticipated situation seems to become more and more routinely viewed as a “mental disorder.”
My first anxiety attack came about in a plane, a small liner with not the best airline reviews that was flying into a turbulent patch for more than 5 hours. I literally had a panic attack and thought I was going to die. In fact, I convinced myself I was going to die. But before I was going to die from a plane crash, I thought I’d die of a heart attack. Needless to say, neither happened.
After that, I’ve always dreaded that queasy feeling in my stomach. It makes me nauseous and makes me tremble. Sometimes, it even happens when I get excited. Instead of embracing a very natural emotion, I became a hypochondriac and tended to spend infinite time wondering what’s wrong with me. Self-diagnosis through the internet never helped, of course. Google “heart fluttering or weakness” and you’ll see death somewhere down the line.
Over time though, I began to accept all the physiological responses that came with anxiety. Instead of avoiding it or fixing it, I’ve learned it’s better to embrace it as a part of “me”. That allows me to perceive the responses from anxiety positively. Once this perception changes, I’ve shifted the valence state — I’m no longer anxious, I’m excited.
Shifting from anxiety to the excitement is easier to do than calming down because all you're doing is changing your valence state while staying in the aroused state. I learned that it can also make people better performers. If it weren’t for a healthy dose of anxiety, we’d be late for our meetings, poorly performing in any task, and lack the ability to plan.
Anxiety breeds success
Harvard Business School’s Alison Wood Brooks conducted an interesting experiment. She recruited a group of volunteers who were “anxious” and asked them to take part in three kinds of experiments: tackling public speaking, math, or singing in front of people. Before they made their speech, dived into their math problem sets, or sang, they were asked to make one of three kinds of statements to themselves:
- Keep calm
- Get excited
- Do nothing
In each of the three cases, the anxious people that told themselves “Get excited” performed better: they gave more persuasive speeches; secured higher math scores, and sang better. Even more than the “keep calm” folks.” And the most interesting thing? All the participants still exhibited anxiety symptoms — the queasiness and the flutters. The only thing that changed was the “valence” component of their emotions, i.e. they thought of their experience as “exciting” rather than stressful.
Other studies have also gone on to show that anxiety can improve our performance on a range of tasks. However, severe anxiety can be debilitating and can hinder our performance. The relationship between anxiety and performance can be expressed graphically by a parabola or inverted ‘U’. This is referred to as the Yerkes–Dodson curve, after the psychologists RM Yerkes and JD Dodson.
According to this curve, our performance rises with arousal (excitement/anxiety) and of course, only up to a certain point, beyond which our performance begins to go down. This curve applies best to complex or difficult tasks (such as speaking in front of an audience), rather than simple tasks (such as sending a generic email) where the relationship between arousal and performance is more linear. Moreover, arousal helps in particular, on physical tasks which require stamina — which is one of the reasons why we can exercise well when we are anxious or excited.
So when you’re anxious, don’t focus on the anxiety. Focus on where you can be productive.
Embracing anxiety is the only way to “cure” it
It’s normal to feel nervous, excited and anxious. Its a part of being human. Most people nowadays, for even small amounts of anxiety — are getting medicated, and I don’t think that’s a good idea. Why? Because suddenly we’re medicating for a normal emotion. Imagine taking a drug to cure happiness! Moreover, when we take medicine for anxiety, we accept that there’s a problem that needs curing. By doing so, we recognize anxiety to be a negative emotion. However, if we can try to think more positively about anxiety — and not have to constantly look for a “cure” — it may disappear on its own, or simply channel into excitement.
I’m not saying anxiety can never be a problem. It can be when it is debilitating and takes over our thoughts — but oft-times, this happens because we fear anxiety itself. Anxiety comes from a state of fear. If there is a car coming at us, our brain tells our body that there is imminent danger and our anxiety will help move us away from the car’s path. Unfortunately, sometimes, there is no real danger except for “anxiety” and our brain can create noise that we misinterpret as dangerous. Then our cortisols rise and our fight/flight system gears up, even though there is no actual danger. If we can embrace anxiety and stay with situations and thoughts that make us anxious, we can retrain our brain to be less reactive to those false thoughts.
Instead of vilifying my anxiety, I’ve tried to accept it as a normal physiological response. This keeps my anxiety to healthy levels without spiraling out of control. Each time I get a queasy feeling in my stomach, especially when opening an email with some “news”, I try to picture a positive outcome, whatever the news. By accepting this queasy feeling, I perceive it positively and can convince myself that I am excited — not anxious.
But more importantly, I’m not looking for a cure for anxiety.
At the end of the day, both excitement and anxiety are what make life so wonderful. I wouldn’t ever want to trade the high I get from excitement, and I wouldn’t want to trade the anxious days for dull days.
By accepting anxiety, I am kinder to myself and my emotions and am able to change my anxiety to excitement. So please — let yourself be anxious — It’s normal. You are likely to discover that moving toward your anxiety, instead of away from it, will ultimately leave you feeling less anxious.