Why “Calm Down” is Terrible Advice

It’s your best friend’s wedding and you are called upon to give a speech in front of two hundred people. Unless you are Barbara Walters, odds are this fills you with dread. Public speaking is pretty high on the list of most people’s top fears. In fact, according to surveys, fear of public speaking is even higher than their fear of death.

We assume that the best way to conquer this paralyzing fear is to get ahold of ourselves and relax. “Calm down,” we tell ourselves over and over again. According to research, this is a terrible idea. First of all it is impossible—a racing heart, shallow breathing and sweaty palms are evidence that there is nothing calm about the situation you are in, Secondly, it doesn’t make any sense. A chilled out speech giver is going to put everyone to sleep.

Instead of trying to calm down, Harvard professor Alison Wood Brooks recommends reframing anxiety and reinterpreting it in a more positive light – without trying to lessen the physical stimulation:

Reappraising anxiety as excitement is more effective than trying to calm down. Individuals can exert influence on their own reappraisal process by stating “I am excited” or by being encouraged to “get excited. Compared with reappraising anxiety as calmness or not reappraising anxiety at all, reappraising anxiety as excitement increased the subjective experience of excitement and improved performance in three important performance domains: singing, public speaking, and math.

In other words, flipping from an anxiety mindset to an excitement mindset made all the difference. All you need to do is to replace one adjective with another.

Back to the speech at your best friend’s wedding. Lean into your anxiety and embrace it as excitement. Remember, fear is just excitement in need of an attitude adjustment.

Nerves and butterflies are fine-

they’re a physical sign

that you’re mentally ready and eager.

You have to get the butterflies

to fly in formation,

that’s the trick.

-Steve Bull

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman