Most people equate feeling anxious or nervous with something bad, but operators, enablers, and
their families can learn to embrace anxiety and use it to their advantage to improve performance
across a variety of domains.
Everyone has experienced the emotion and physiology of anxiety,
whether it’s getting ready to head out on a brand new mission, bringing a new child home from
the hospital, or simply having to start a difficult conversation. Your interpretation of the bodily
sensations that accompany anxiety can determine whether those feelings get in the way of
optimal performance or facilitate it.
In high stakes situations where performance matters, the emotions and physiological effects that
go along with anxiety are common. When your fight or flight stress response is activated, your
heart beats faster, you might feel sweaty, and your stomach can feel uneasy. Even though these
are signs that your body is preparing you to be at your best, this nervousness can feel unpleasant,
and then the emotions and physical sensations of anxiety can in turn become a source of stress.
Take the example of having to give an important brief to a new commander. As you’re getting
ready to speak, you might notice you’re feeling nervous, and you might say to yourself, “I feel
like this because I’m not ready” or “I’m sweating because I can’t handle this.” Interpreting what’s happening in your body as something negative makes you likely to continue thinking
negatively about yourself and your ability to manage a situation. That in turn reinforces your
anxious emotions and fuels more of the uncomfortable physical sensations. So how do you get
out of the loop?
Is It Enough Just To Relax?
Most people have been taught that the only antidote to anxiety is control. At times, you can
“relax away the symptoms” when you’re feeling stressed. Using strategies such as tactical
breathing can sometimes be effective to balance out the fight-or-flight stress response and help
you feel calm and more in control. However, there are times when trying to calm down can negatively impact your performance. When you’re feeling anxious, it’s sometimes difficult—or
even impossible—to simply decide to feel calmer mentally, because it isn’t consistent with
what’s happening in your body. And trying to pretend you’re calm can make you feel even more
Get Excited Instead
How you interpret the physical sensations of anxiety can change how you feel
emotionally—including your overall mindset—and ultimately make a difference in how you
perform. When you’re feeling really anxious, try instead to reinterpret your anxiety as excitement. Because some of your body’s reactions to excitement—increased heart rate,
“butterflies,” etc.—are the same as with anxiety, you can make the conscious choice to interpret
what’s happening to your body as excitement rather than anxiety.
Tell yourself that the
sensations you feel are helping your mind and body boost your performance and enable you to
feel more confident and composed—rather than a sign that you can’t handle what’s going on.
This doesn’t make the anxiety go away, but it does help you think about the same symptoms
differently, which influences how you think and, ultimately, how you perform.
Take An Example From The Home Front
Your child is getting ready to take an important exam,
and he’s feeling very nervous. He might be thinking, “I’m going to be a wreck and forget all the
answers,” or “I feel like I’m going to vomit before every test because I’m weak.” You can coach
him to reinterpret his nerves by telling himself, “I’m excited to show the teacher how much I’ve
learned,” or “I feel this way because my body is helping me get ready for this exam,” or “I’m
nervous because this test matters to me, and I’m going to do my best!”.
Excitement feels good
and puts your mind on a different track. When you’re excited, it’s easier to become aware of
opportunities instead of just potential threats. And this “opportunity mindset” leads to better
So when you feel anxious about performing on the physical fitness test, speaking at a spouses’
meeting, or helping your kid prepare for the big game, remember that it’s normal to feel anxious.
Your mindset about stress and anxiety will determine whether the anxiety helps you perform
your best or gets in your way. Convince yourself to feel excited instead.
Allow yourself to see
the opportunities. And in turn, enjoy better performance.