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Success in the Workplace
with Kristi Tackett-Newburg, Ph.D., LIMHP, CPC

Is Anxiety Necessary for Peak Performance? How to Transform Fear into Action Now

You have been working on a special project for your boss over the past month and are feeling pretty good about it.  After all, you have discovered a way for your company to save thousands of dollars.  You share your findings with your boss and she is equally impressed.  So impressed, in fact, that she tells you that she would like for you to present your findings to a group of senior managers who are scheduled to meet in approximately 45 minutes.

As soon as you hear the word “present” you immediately begin to sweat.  Your heart starts pounding and you feel your stomach doing somersaults.

You start imagining worst case scenarios…

“What if I mess up?”

“What if my voice shakes the whole time?”

“What if everyone thinks I’m a moron?”

Forty-five minutes later, you are still feeling anxious but you know that you have no choice if you ever want to move up in your company.  Soon it is your turn to speak.  Everyone turns to looks at you and suddenly your mind goes blank.  Your face turns beet red and you start to become dizzy.  You think, “Oh no, this is so awkward. Everyone must think I am completely incompetent.”

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone.  According to a Gallup poll, 40% of Americans have a fear of public speaking.  Interestingly, this includes many famous actors, musicians, and professional athletes who have admitted to suffering from stage fright.

You may wonder how that is even possible, given their entire career is centered around their ability to perform.

What if I told you that a simple mindset tweak is all that is needed to transform fear into action?

Emotions Are Intense, Fleeting, and Evolutionary

It is no surprise that researchers have become increasingly more interested in studying emotions.  After all, emotions largely shape our attitudes, feelings, and moods.  Not only that, emotions underpin every conscious and unconscious decision and purposeful action that we take.  Modern evolutionary theorists believe that not only are emotions inherent, they are necessary for survival.

Let me give you an example…

You are out on a morning stroll through a heavily wooded park near your home.  Suddenly, in the distance, you spot a snake coiled up right in the middle of the concrete path you are walking on. You feel a surge of adrenaline, which makes you stop dead in your tracks.  As you begin to panic, the wind starts blowing and the “snake” unravels. You quickly realize that what you perceived to be a snake, was actually just a piece of rope that was coiled up.  As soon as know there is no real danger, you immediately calm down and continue your pleasant journey forward.

Emotions vs. Feelings vs. Moods

It is common to hear people use the words emotions, feelings, and moods interchangeably. While they share some similarities, there are a few fundamental differences between each of these states.

Emotions are intense, fleeting chemical reactions that occur instinctively in response to a specific stimulus.  They are hard-wired and can be objectively measured by brain activity and blood flow.  While researchers have debated the exact number of emotions the human brain instinctually experiences, many agree that eight primary emotions exist: fear, anger, disgust, shame, surprise, sadness, love/trust and joy/excitement.  Five of these represent “survival emotions” (i.e., fear, anger, disgust, shame and sadness) and involve the release of cortisol, while love/trust and joy/excitement are mediated by the effects of dopamine, oxytocin, and noradrenaline on brain receptors.  Emotions are carried out by the brain’s limbic system and are designed to warn us of potential threats or danger.  While emotions can be considered irrational and illogical, they contain data and are an essential component of our decision-making processes.

Feelings are a manifestation of emotions being combined with thoughts.  Feelings are not universal and can vary from person to person.  In fact, two people experiencing the same emotion, may identify and label it differently.  When emotional chemicals enter the bloodstream, our bodies physically respond.  As we begin to “feel our emotions,” our brain tries to make sense of what is going on.  Feelings are often fueled by a combination of emotions and frequently last longer.

Unlike emotions and feelings, moods tend to be more generalized, less intense and can last for a much longer period of time.  Moods are often not tied to any one, specific event and are largely influenced by other factors such as our mental state, stress level, diet, physical activity, and even our environment (e.g., the weather, time of year, etc.).

So Is It Fear or Excitement…You Decide

Let me share with you an example that I frequently use with my own clients who are struggling with anxiety.

Let’s imagine for a minute that you absolutely love roller coasters.  In fact, the more drops and loops, the better.  Now, let’s say that both you and I are standing in line waiting to ride the “latest and greatest” roller coaster.  We are both experiencing a surge of adrenaline.  We notice that our senses are heightened and our heart rate and respiration have increased.  Now here is the difference.

I absolutely detest roller coasters.

So while our bodies are experiencing the same physiological response, you are perceiving and labeling your emotional reactions as thrill or excitement, while I am labeling my experience as extreme fear and apprehension.

Do you see the difference?

Well, your body doesn’t know the difference.  Fear and excitement are considered “arousal congruent,” meaning both of these emotions lead the body to experience the same physiological response.

The Role of Anxiety in Peak Performance

Did you know there are actual benefits to experiencing anxiety?

As stated earlier, when we experience fear, our brain triggers the release of certain chemicals that signal different areas of our body.  This rush of adrenaline is designed to give us the boost of energy that is needed to effectively perform.

Think about it, if you are getting ready to give a speech in front of a large audience, would you rather feel melancholy or energized?

Let’s revisit the story presented at the beginning of the blog post.  To recap, your boss has just informed you that you will be presenting your findings from an important project to a group of senior managers in approximately 45 minutes.  You have always hated public speaking, shying away from the spotlight as much as possible.

You feel yourself beginning to panic.

What should you do?  Try to calm yourself down as much as possible?  Not according to a recent study published by Alison Brooks, Assistant Professor at Harvard Business School.

Dr. Brooks conducted a series of studies to investigate whether reappraising anxiety as excitement would have any impact on three performance-based tasks that are notorious for inducing anxiety: karaoke singing, public speaking, and math performance.  Dr. Brooks found that the deliberate act of labeling anxious arousal as excitement led participants to experience greater feelings of excitement and improved performance.  Basically, the act of reappraising anxiety as excitement allowed participants to adopt an opportunity mindset rather than a threat mindset, which led to improved performance.

Transform Fear into Action by Learning to ASCEND

We now know that it is possible to channel your fears in order to improve performance.

But how?

Ascend: “To rise or climb.”

The next time you need to transform your fear into action, remember the acronym A.S.C.E.N.D.

Appraise the situation.  Begin by assessing the task.  How important is your performance in this particular situation?  Practice self-awareness to identify what is going on inside your mind and body.  Learn to be present so you can accurately respond to the perceived obstacle.  Mindfulness techniques work great for boosting self-awareness.

Select the emotion.  Once you perceive a shift in your body chemistry, try to label what emotion you are experiencing.  Emotions contain data and clue us into how we should behave in certain situations.  The best way to learn how to label emotions is by building your emotional vocabulary.  I personally recommend the app, Mood Meter, which was designed and created by researchers from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.

Consider your thoughts.  Once you have labeled your emotion, try to pay attention to your thoughts.  What is going through your mind?  What is your perception of the situation?  What are you afraid might happen?  Learn to identify whether your thoughts are productive and will help you to achieve your goals.  Make sure to get rid of any toxic thoughts that won’t serve you.

Embrace the energy.  Are you experiencing fear or anxiety?  Instead of suppressing it, learn to embrace it.  Remember, if you feel a surge of adrenaline, that is your body’s way of giving you the energy you need to perform at your best.

Name a new emotion.  Now it’s time to re-label your emotion.  Facing a tough task? Get in control of your emotions by using cognitive re-appraisal. Dr. Brooks recommends telling yourself, “I am excited” or “Get excited” to shift you away from a threat mindset and into an opportunity mindset.

Decide to take action.  Finally, once you cultivate the right mindset, it’s time to take action. Remember, neurons that fire together wire together.  With enough repetition, you can create lasting change.

Is Anxiety Necessary for Peak Performance? How to Transform Fear into Action Now

Kristi Tackett-Newburg, Ph.D., LIMHP, CPC

Kristi Tackett-Newburg is a business psychologist, licensed psychotherapist, and the CEO/President of Counseling Connections & Associates located in Omaha, Nebraska.  Kristi's research interests include emotional intelligence, talent management and employee engagement. You can connect with her on her website, Facebook or on Twitter @ktackettnewburg

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APA Reference
Tackett-Newburg, K. (2018). Is Anxiety Necessary for Peak Performance? How to Transform Fear into Action Now. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Apr 2018
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