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Choiceology: Season 6 Episode 1

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Can adverse emotional reactions be reframed to diminish their negative consequences?

The rapid heartbeat. The shaking hands. The flushed face. The symptoms of pre-performance jitters are common. For some people, nervousness before a big test or important presentation is normal and temporary. For others, it can be debilitating. Typical suggestions for managing nerves tend to involve deep breaths and calming thoughts. But what if there were a better way?

In this episode of Choiceology with Katy Milkman, we look at the science behind the state of arousal commonly referred to as stage fright, including new research into better ways to manage unpleasant emotions.

You’ll hear world-renowned concert pianist Steven Osborne describe the agonizing moment during an important performance when he began to experience memory lapses due to anxiety. As the fear of making mistakes increased, Steven began to worry that stage fright could cost him the career he loved. But through therapy and reflection, he managed to flip the script on his anxiety—and came to see it as a gift to be explored.

All of the piano music in this segment comes from Steven Osborne’s recordings. You can hear his complete performances on Beethoven Piano Sonatas Opp 109, 110 & 111 and Prokofiev Piano Sonatas Nos 6, 7 & 8, available on Hyperion Records.

Next, Alison Wood Brooks joins Katy to talk about her fascinating research into stage fright using video game karaoke to discover the most effective techniques for managing and even leveraging pre-performance nerves.

Alison Wood Brooks is the O’Brien Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. For more on her research, you can read her paper Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-performance Anxiety as Excitement.

Finally, Katy explores other ways to regulate unpleasant emotions. These techniques can help improve outcomes for negotiations, job interviews, and schoolwork.

For more on behavioral science—including additional content from the expert interviews featured on Choiceology—you can sign up for Katy’s newsletter at katymilkman.com/newsletter.

Choiceology is an original podcast from Charles Schwab.

If you enjoy the show, please leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

Click to show the transcript

KATY MILKMAN: Picture one of those big reality TV singing contests, say, American Idol. It’s the finals, and contestants are getting ready for their turn to perform in front of the judges and a huge audience.

SPEAKER 2: OK, Sam, this is your big moment. The audience is waiting. Judges are ready to go, so how are you feeling?

SPEAKER 3: Oh man. I’m so nervous. My hands are shaking. I don’t know if I can do this.

SPEAKER 2: Ah, you got this, buddy. Take a deep breath. That’s it. OK. Get out there and show ’em what you got.

SPEAKER 3: Can I start again?

SPEAKER 2: OK. Lanelle, it is time. The judges and the audience are all ready for you. How are you feeling?

SPEAKER 4: Oh my gosh, my heart is racing. My hands are shaking, but I am so excited. What an opportunity.

SPEAKER 2: All right. Well, good luck out there.

SPEAKER 4: Roses and rain all over …

KATY MILKMAN: It’s a scene that’s played out many times, in many different ways. On stage, in the boardroom, at the front of the class, and possibly in your nightmares. The rapid heartbeat, the sweaty palms, the shallow breathing. For some, it’s a feeling of excitement. Others feel like they might die. Today on the podcast, we’re looking at the way emotions can affect our performance, but also strategies we can use to improve our performance when threatening emotions well up.

I’m Dr. Katy Milkman, and this is Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. It’s a show about the psychology and economics behind our decisions. We bring you true stories involving high-stakes, make-or-break moments. And we explore the latest research in behavioral science to help you perform better and avoid costly mistakes.

STEVEN OSBORNE: So I’m Steven Osborne. I’m a classical pianist, and I’m based in Edinburgh.

KATY MILKMAN: Steven Osborne is an exceptional musician, a sensitive and expressive artist who always strives to reveal the emotional depth of the music he performs. His love of the piano started very early on.

STEVEN OSBORNE: I was completely drawn to piano from when I was old enough that I could reach the keys. As a toddler, I was fascinated by it. As a young kid, as soon as I woke up, which was normally very early in the morning, I would go straight downstairs and start playing the piano, and my dad would come and bring me back to bed. There was never anything else I really wanted to do.

KATY MILKMAN: Steven enrolled at St. Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh at the age of 10.

STEVEN OSBORNE: Well, I was there until I was 17. Then I went to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and was there for six years.

KATY MILKMAN: He was a natural performer and enjoyed being on the stage, even when things didn’t go perfectly.

STEVEN OSBORNE: My experience of performing through my teens was quite nice. I remember at the same time I could be quite self-critical. I remember often thinking I didn’t play very well, but I didn’t find the actual experience of being on stage problematic.

KATY MILKMAN: Steven’s career as a soloist developed gradually over the years.

STEVEN OSBORNE: It made me feel like I had the freedom to keep exploring repertoire. I didn’t suddenly feel like everyone was looking and I had to get everything right all the time.

KATY MILKMAN: That freedom to explore and his comfort and ease on stage helped establish Steven as a top-tier performer. He’s had many successful concerts and been lauded by critics and audiences around the world.

STEVEN OSBORNE: The best concerts I gave, I think, are the ones where I feel the most relaxed.

KATY MILKMAN: Steven’s repertoire is incredibly nuanced and often fiercely complex. He memorizes lengthy solo programs, chamber works, and concertos, and he makes all these dazzling pieces come alive on stage. As you can probably imagine, being a professional pianist is an extremely tough career. And one that could easily have been cut short by the painful phenomenon of stage fright. Steven’s first serious bout of anxiety was at a concert with The Hallé, a symphony orchestra based in Manchester, England. He was set to perform Mozart’s 23rd piano concerto with the orchestra at Bridgewater Hall, a gorgeous 2,400-seat venue. It was supposed to be a special evening, but it didn’t go according to plan.

STEVEN OSBORNE: A relationship I was in was in the process of breaking down, and I didn’t actually connect the two things at the time. But looking back, there probably was some kind of connection.

KATY MILKMAN: Whatever it was, something was different about this concert.

STEVEN OSBORNE: I just remember being onstage and then suddenly having this terror that I was going to forget what I was doing. And my memory had always been very secure. So it sort of came out of the blue.

KATY MILKMAN: Imagine that. An intense panic about the possibility of forgetting some portion of the dozens of pages of music that Steven had memorized and rehearsed and perfected. Fortunately, he managed to get through the performance without a major disaster, but his anxiety was intense and he had three more performances to go in that run of concerts.

STEVEN OSBORNE: I didn’t forget anything, but just there was this constant thing in the back of my mind, worrying what might happen.

KATY MILKMAN: That fear of making mistakes came on suddenly.

STEVEN OSBORNE: It felt like an earthquake. I really vividly remember that feeling of everything shifting internally, and what I felt was solid, discovering that it wasn’t. Very, very unpleasant. It was really awful. Oh, terrible.

KATY MILKMAN: Steven laughs now, but at the time it was terrifying. Steven struggled with this performance anxiety for a few years, another intense moment came in 2008.

STEVEN OSBORNE: So I was playing this piece for the first time in the Proms, which is a stressful thing to do anyway.

KATY MILKMAN: The Proms are the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts, a summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts and other events held every year, mostly at the Royal Albert Hall in central London.

STEVEN OSBORNE: I mean, arguably the Proms is the biggest classical music festival in the world. It happens in the Royal Albert Hall, it’s really big hall. It’s quite unusual the shape of it, circular. When it’s full and you walk out onto the stage, and there’s actually people all around you, you feel like you’re walking into a gladiatorial arena. It’s an extraordinary thing. Where the stage is, right next to it, there’s a big space for people to stand, and there’ll be hundreds of people in this space. And they’re basically, if I really reached out, I could touch the one closest to me just about.

KATY MILKMAN: It was an intense performance experience. Up close and personal with an audience that had high expectations. Steven was scheduled to perform a Rachmaninoff concerto.

STEVEN OSBORNE: Rachmaninoff’s always difficult physically. Before I perform something in public for the first time, I always have a number of dry runs, simply playing it through myself, playing it through to friends, maybe playing it through my old school or a music college. And I’d done a run through of the piece at the conservatory in Glasgow. And I’d had a memory lapse in the middle of that. There’s one bit in which the piano is playing lots of notes and the orchestra is playing almost nothing. And it’s very treacherous because at two different times it goes in two different directions. And in this run through I took the wrong direction the first time.

KATY MILKMAN: He had accidentally moved to the wrong section of the piece. If this happened at the Proms, it could be a career disaster.

STEVEN OSBORNE: And because nothing happens in the orchestra almost, it’s incredibly hard to find your way back. So at that time, actually, it was fine. I just sort of said, “Oh, sorry.” So I went back to the start of the section and got through it, but it really stuck in my mind.

There was a performance the day before the Proms in Belfast, and all through that performance, even though I didn’t go the wrong direction, this particular bit by memory, I had this extremely strong sort of awareness of that bit coming up and “Is it going to work OK?” And indeed it did. But through that performance, I kept just sort of missing little things like a couple of notes that I somehow would go the wrong way, that I would forget. There was no big memory lapses, but I felt really like there was something developing as I was playing, an increasing anxiety. I know that in reality the things were relatively small. I mean, it’s possible that some of the musicians noticed, but I doubt they would have had much sense of what was actually going on inside me, that there is such a degree of anxiety, was this sort of irrational fear that it was all going to fall apart somehow. That everything I’d practiced for all those months just was going to disappear from my hands and my brain.

KATY MILKMAN: Performance anxiety is very common. Most musicians and public speakers, most people, will experience it from time to time to varying degrees. For professional musicians, of course, performance anxiety can be a bigger deal than it is for many of the rest of us. It can ruin a career.

STEVEN OSBORNE: This whole subject of anxiety around performing is very little talked about in classical musical circles. It’s a little more now, but certainly back then, I’d never heard anyone say anything about it.

KATY MILKMAN: Fortunately, help is out there.

STEVEN OSBORNE: Well, I went to see a therapist, basically, CBT kind of practitioner.

KATY MILKMAN: CBT stands for “cognitive behavioral therapy,” a kind of therapy that seeks to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are causing people problems. And it can produce big benefits when it comes to managing difficult emotions.

STEVEN OSBORNE: One thing that was very helpful that she talked about was identifying what the actual thoughts were behind the feelings. So that was quite useful. Just sort of starting to dig down into what was actually going on internally, which you’re thinking about the thoughts helped make the feelings seem a bit less overwhelming, particularly when you see certain thoughts or you think, well, that’s obviously irrational. It doesn’t make the feelings go away, but at least it helps create some kind of perspective. So the feelings don’t dominate.

KATY MILKMAN: While cognitive behavioral therapy was helpful in the short term, Steven came to find that a habit of writing down his feelings gave him an even deeper perspective on what he was experiencing.

STEVEN OSBORNE: When I feel anxious, I go through this process of writing about it or talking to someone about it, but I just express exactly what I’m feeling, what I’m fearing, the more irrational the better, you know all of this sort of stuff that comes out of these sort of murky subconscious depths. Sort of feelings of humiliation and shame and terror, those kinds of things. So trying to get all of that out with as much depth as I can. Again, in classical music it’s so much about expression. About how you emotionally relate to the piece of music and what you can say through the piece of music. And it seems to me that in that experience of anxiety, there’s an incredibly rich store of emotion if one could open up to it and not push it away but, as best as one could, make friends with it. Sort of sit with it, try and settle into it without defending yourself.

KATY MILKMAN: Steven employed the strategy of re-examining his feelings as a way to remove some of their negative power. He reframes the nervous energy as a deep well of emotional connection that he can tap to connect with an audience. He also spends time in advance of concerts to get into a mindset that he’s confident will help him perform well.

STEVEN OSBORNE: If there’s some big concert coming up, normally the anxiety will start some days before. And then that gives you an opportunity to start paying attention to it and start thinking about “Why am I anxious?” You know, what’s going on. And so then it comes to the day of a concert, and you’ve already done this work, which helps bound the anxiety so that you’re not taken over by it. In the end, as a performer, you’re one person and then there are these hundreds of people in the hall. And what’s really important is the experience of the people in the hall. You’re giving them something and recognizing that the things which might feel humiliating or might feel annoying that go wrong for you mean almost nothing to the people listening. So trying to reframe things in that way. The important thing is not my experience—it’s the audience’s experience.

KATY MILKMAN: Steven now gives seminars on the topic of performance anxiety to other classical musicians to help them cope with this pervasive problem.

STEVEN OSBORNE: I’ve done a number of workshops on it. I mean, it feels to me that one of the most valuable things is simply saying, “I suffer with this too.” And I have suffered with it quite strongly because I think it’s just a great relief for people to know that they’re not alone with it, because that experience of anxiety can make you feel so alone and like there’s something wrong with you. There was a survey of classical musicians done a few years ago. There were 2,000 musicians they interviewed, and 24% suffered from stage fright. So it’s very common. And then I sort of talk about the strategies that I’ve found helpful, and I try and help them reframe these issues in the way that I talked about.

KATY MILKMAN: Steven has come to understand the anxiety as an unfortunate side effect of the perfectionism that classical music demands.

STEVEN OSBORNE: In order to play an instrument very well, you have to start young. You have to put in an awful lot of hours to do that unless you’re some real genius. The classical musicians that become successful are often the ones that have had that very tunnel-visioned childhood, but also there’s a seriousness around classical music. What classical music says is—the best of it says something so deeply profound about the human condition. That expresses some of the deepest things that we can experience.

KATY MILKMAN: That seriousness has consequences for many performers. For Steven, it could have been career ending, but through therapy and changing the way he thinks about his performances, he’s come to manage his feelings in a more constructive way.

STEVEN OSBORNE: When it first happened, it felt absolutely catastrophic. And I felt like I’d lost something that was so precious and that I didn’t know if I would ever get it back. But looking back, it was crucially important that that happened because at that first emergence of anxiety, it was like something of those defenses breaking down. So even though it felt like something terrible was happening, actually in a way, it was the start of something more healthy emerging. The main way that my playing has changed, I think, in the last 20 years is I think it’s much more emotionally engaged than it was back then.

KATY MILKMAN: The music you heard in this story was all performed by pianist Steven Osborne. In 2020 he’ll release Prokofiev’s War Sonatas, marking his 30th recording for Hyperion. Special thanks to Hyperion for the use of the musical excerpts. You can find links to Steven Osborne’s biography and recordings in the show notes and at schwab.com/podcast.

Steven Osborne’s story has a happy ending. He was able to gain some measure of control over his anxiety about making mistakes in his performances, thanks in part to cognitive behavioral therapy. But for millions of people, stage fright or performance anxiety can have terrible personal consequences—missed career opportunities, romantic heartache, social isolation, depression, and even financial ruin. But behavioral science is revealing some new and somewhat counterintuitive strategies that can help mitigate the intense feelings of fear and anxiety associated with things like public speaking, high-stakes testing, or even more common experiences like mingling at parties or managing your investment portfolio. And these strategies can help us in other emotionally charged arenas as well. A strategy I want to focus on now revolves around the concept of emotional reappraisal. It’s the idea that many of our intense emotional reactions can be reframed in ways that diminish their potentially negative consequences.

My next guest has written extensively about the power of reappraising emotions, particularly around performance anxiety. Alison Wood Brooks is the O’Brien Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and she joins me from her home in Cambridge.

Hi, Alison, thank you so much for joining me today.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Hi, Katie. Thanks so much for having me. It’s so nice to hear your voice.

KATY MILKMAN: Likewise. I want to start with a really basic question, which is just asking you to define emotion reappraisal. What does it mean exactly for, say, a pianist to attempt to reappraise anxiety as excitement?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: So when we experience emotions, there are a number of ways that you can respond to the experience of it. And reappraisal is one of them. It’s one of these emotion regulation strategies. It’s a way to think differently about the physiological and mental symptoms that you’re experiencing. It’s a way to reframe them. So another word for reappraisal would be reframing.

KATY MILKMAN: And what exactly does it look like? So if I wanted to reframe or reappraise an emotion, what would I do?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: So that’s one of the questions that I was pursuing in my research. I sort of wondered, what are the interventions? What are the strategies that people can use to successfully reappraise their emotions, to successfully think about their feelings in a different way, in a way that might influence their behavior positively? And in my work, I discovered two different ways. One is out loud just talking about your feelings differently. So the way that we label our emotions verbally to ourselves out loud and to other people is consequential. So if, when someone says, “Hey, how are you feeling?” If you say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so nervous.” It actually influences how you feel. You will actually continue to feel nervous. Whereas if you say, “You know what, I’m really excited. This is an amazing opportunity. I can’t wait to play the piano for you.” Turns out, just by saying that out loud, sort of tricks your brain into believing that you actually are excited, and people report feeling more excited. They show physiological signs of being more excited. So saying it out loud is one way.

Another way is really just more intrapsychic, staying in your own head and doing exercises that make you think differently about your feelings. So in one of our studies, we had participants read instructions that just said, “Get excited.” And they read those instructions over and over. They did writing tasks to think about to themselves why they were excited and how to get excited for the task ahead.

KATY MILKMAN: That’s really interesting. Could you actually dive in a little bit to that fascinating research you did when you were a graduate student looking at how reappraising emotions can change people’s decisions and performance?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Absolutely. It seems like such a small, simple intervention, but the way that we feel and the way we think about our feelings is quite consequential in the way that we perform subsequently. When you feel anxious—which everyone does, everyone experiences anxiety, quite commonly, all the time. When you feel anxious, your focus narrows, you become hypervigilant, and it harms performance on many tasks. But when you feel excited, it actually helps performance. It raises your energy, raises your level of effort. And your enthusiasm is observable by other people as well. So as a doctoral student, in my dissertation work, I was really excited to study this idea. How can we play around with emotional reappraisal? So we looked at a number of performance domains. I started with one that was very near and dear to my heart, which is singing. Singing in front of other people is a task that makes almost everybody nervous, even good singers. So we asked people to sing a karaoke song, a Journey song, a really hard Journey song, “Don’t Stop Believin’”—in front of a small audience in our lab. And before they came into the lab, we told them, “Surprise, you have to sing this song in front of a little audience.”

And before they sang, they were required to label their emotion in a certain way. And a subset of the participants were required to say, “I’m really nervous about this.” A different subset of participants were required to say, “I’m really excited about this.” And a third subset said, “I’m trying to calm down” or “I’m feeling really calm.” And what we’ve found is that people who did the reappraisal intervention, those who said they were excited out loud actually sang better, they performed better. And we used—at the time it was cutting-edge technology, almost 10 years ago—we used the Nintendo Wii. We had a game called Karaoke Revolution, and it measured different aspects of singing performance. So what we found is that when people reappraise their anxiety as excitement, they actually sang better across all three of the sub measures of pitch, rhythm, and volume. So that was the first task.

And the second task, we’d wanted to move into a task that people do more often in their lives, especially in their work lives. And so we looked to public speaking. And we asked people to give a short public speech in our lab. Similar, again, we did the intervention where we had people reappraise their anxiety as excitement or tried to calm down. Calming down is the sort of natural response that people have when they feel anxious before a task. Almost everyone feels like they need to calm down. It’s a very strong human instinct, but calming down is really hard. It requires two steps. You have to sort of change your mindset from negative to positive, right? So anxiety is negative valence, calmness is positive valence. You also have to reduce your physiological signs of anxiety, which turns out you can’t do. We can’t will yourself to slow down your heart rate and make your palms stop sweating and reduce your internal cortisol levels. That’s something that is very, very difficult, if not impossible, to do.

So instead, the insight here is let’s stay in the high arousal zone. Stop trying to control your body and just run with the high arousal. Run with the racing heart, run with the sweaty palms, and just think of it differently. Move from that negative anxiety to a positive of excitement. So this reappraisal idea between anxiety and excitement, it triggers the difference between a threat mindset and an opportunity mindset.

KATY MILKMAN: That’s totally fascinating. I’m curious, Alison, if you could tell us a little bit about what first got you interested in studying this topic. I’m curious if it had anything to do with your own background as a performer.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Oh my gosh. You had to make it about me, Katie. Jeez. The real sort of epiphany moment was ... I was watching an episode of American Idol, which 10 years ago was really the hot thing, and I was sitting on the couch at home, and I started to realize that they always ask the contestants before they go into audition before the judges, “How are you feeling right now?” And I realized that the really great singers always said they were excited. They’re so jazzed. They’ve been waiting for this moment their whole lives. And the really bad singers would often say like, “Oh my God, I’m so nervous.” Or they look really nervous, and they have hives, and they’re freaking out. And I thought, well of course, great performers are going to be less nervous because they’re actually more likely to perform well, and bad singers should be more nervous because they’re more likely to fail. But then I thought, you know, I wonder if the reverse causality, the reverse direction, is also true. Just by telling Ryan Seacrest right before your audition—if I say, “I’m excited,” does that help me perform better? Even if I’m not that great, will I sing better if I say I’m excited? And so that was sort of a triggering moment.

The other thing, and this is on a more personal note, I sang in an a capella group in college. And every year during our auditions, we saw hundreds of kids come in and sing a song. And it was just like American Idol. It was so anxiety inducing for them. You saw them do all kinds of crazy things to try and cope with their anxiety. People would come in with these huge, like a gallon of hot tea with lemon and honey, and they’re just drinking it, like desperately drinking it to try and warm up their throat. And the same was true there. The really great singers—or, and sometimes only pretty good singers—would come in and say, “I’m so excited to be here” and then totally nail the audition. And the people who talked about how nervous they were or were clearly trying to do things to calm down, they always struggled because anxiety hurts performance in so many ways, particularly for singers, right? Like the physiological effects of anxiety actually constrict your vocal chords and harm your performance.

KATY MILKMAN: That’s really interesting. All right. This is a natural question, which is just how do you apply what you’ve learned about emotion reappraisal in your own life?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Oh my gosh. I truly believe that the more you practice reappraisal, the better you get at it. So much so that it can become habitual. So it’s almost like this upward spiral where I reappraise my anxiety as excitement, I’m more likely to perform well. When I perform well, I start to feel like, oh, I’m good at this thing, I am a good singer, I’m good at public speaking, I’m good at math. So the next time I go to do that task, it’s even easier to convince myself that I’m excited about it. And then you build sort of this confidence and these feelings of excitement and enthusiasm, and you start to develop expertise so much so that maybe you even stop experiencing anxiety about those tasks altogether.

And I have to say, I think I’ve done that when it comes to public speaking and talking about my research or teaching, and often even singing. I sing in a band with some of my faculty colleagues at Harvard, and people often ask me, “Don’t you feel nervous to sing, even just with the band or in front of other people?” And I really don’t. I feel so excited and privileged to play music. It’s incredible.

KATY MILKMAN: That’s amazing. And that sounds so fun. All right. So a natural question listeners are going to have, I think, is how they can best apply this strategy to their own lives?

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Yeah. So it’s a great question. And I think what’s nice about this strategy is that it doesn’t have diminishing marginal returns. Meaning if you do it over and over, it’s not like the magic of this strategy wears off. And it’s likely that you feel anxiety across a huge array of tests and domains in your life. I mean, you might feel anxious driving, you might feel nervous about your finances right now, you probably worry about the health and safety of your family and friends, you worry about public speaking, you worry about managing meetings at work or performing well at your job, or just getting all of your tasks done in your household. So these sort of normal feelings of state anxiety that come and go for us throughout every day, in every of those moments, there’s likely a way to focus on the opportunities rather than the threats of an upcoming task.

How can you focus on how things can go well? Maybe even make a list. Think about all of the things that could go great and focus on those things to encourage an opportunity mindset, to lead to excitement rather than anxiety. Another thing that I think based on our research that is quite effective is talking about it out loud to other people. Verbal communication is a form of commitment. So even just saying it out loud to one other person sort of makes it true. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I say, “I’m excited,” and therefore I am excited. And that’s what we find in our work, that just a simple form of saying it out loud can actually make you feel more excited and more likely to perform well. And the more often you can do this in your life, the more positive you will become as a person, and the more effectively you’ll perform across a huge array of tasks.

KATY MILKMAN: I love that. That’s so helpful. Thank you, Alison. This is great. I’m excited that we got a chance to talk. And that actually is genuine—I didn’t have to do any reappraisal there. Thank you for taking the time. I really, really appreciate it.

ALISON WOOD BROOKS: Thank you for having me. It’s such a pleasure.

KATY MILKMAN: Alison Wood Brooks is the O’Brien Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. You can find a link to her paper “Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement” in the show notes or at schwab.com/podcast.

Our sister podcast, Financial Decoder, has explored the important question of how to manage investments in a volatile market when you run the risk of making rash decisions—thanks to spiking anxiety and other negative emotions. In one recent episode of Financial Decoder entitled “Should You Get Out of the Market Now and Get Back in Later?” host Mark Riepe covers rebalancing, tax-loss harvesting, and other strategies for making the best of a down market. You can find it at schwab.com/financialdecoder or wherever you listen to podcasts.

While we’ve spent most of the episode talking about anxiety, and my expert guest, Alison Wood Brooks, talked about reframing anxiety as excitement, it turns out that reappraisal can be useful with other emotions too. For instance, Alison has written about how other emotions besides anxiety can negatively affect negotiators. The more anger people show during a negotiation, the more likely it is that their negotiation will end poorly, say, in litigation or an impasse. Reappraising anger as passion could potentially help negotiators better cope with their negative emotions and arrive at more successful outcomes. But reappraisal is just one of several defenses we have against negative emotions. Stanford psychologist James Gross has written extensively about the different ways we can regulate unpleasant emotions, which range from avoiding situations that are likely to give rise to them to attempting to suppress bad feelings after they’ve arisen. When you can’t simply avoid a situation that’s likely to produce negative emotions—say, giving a recital if you’re a professional pianist—then you’re left with a few options.

First, you can adjust the way the event in question will unfold. If you’re a pianist, you could arrange to play with your back to the audience. If you’re afraid of giving a toast at the annual holiday party, you could turn the toast into a duet, asking a friend to banter with you in front of the crowd—so it feels more like a conversation and less like the spotlight is on you. By strategically modifying situations that are likely to provoke negative feelings, often we can avoid those bad feelings altogether. Alternatively, we can try to productively shift attention away from whatever is likely to give rise to negative emotions. This might mean playing with your smartphone during a scary movie so you’ll miss the tensest parts or simply looking away from your audience during a piano recital.

Reappraisal is a particularly powerful tool to deploy when it’s too late to change your situation to dodge negative emotions and redirecting attention isn’t feasible or working. It’s all about the way you interpret your feelings and is a technique commonly taught in therapy. Remarkably, day-to-day use of emotion reappraisal strategies has been correlated with improved well-being and reduced mental health issues. We hope that by sharing a bit of information about this technique and other ways to dodge the harmful effects of negative emotions, we’ve armed you with a powerful new set of tools for improving your choices and well-being.

You’ve been listening to Choiceology, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you’ve enjoyed the show, we’d be really grateful if you’d leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. You can also subscribe to the show for free in your favorite podcasting apps. And if you’d like to get my newsletter to learn more about behavioral science, you can sign up at katymilkman.com/newsletter. Next time, we’ll explore how your happiness and purchasing decisions can be influenced by how many options you face. I’m Katy Milkman—talk to you next time.

SPEAKER 7: For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit schwab.com/podcast.

Important Disclosures

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions.

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