I just finished reading the latest edition of Psychology Today and came across a very interesting experiment.

The results showed that students who were told that nervousness would improve performance ended up scoring better on their Graduate Record Exam (GRE) than students who were told nothing at all.

The study was done by several researchers at the Emotion, Health, And Psychophysiology Laboratory at Harvard University. It is further evidence on the power of positive appraisal on physiology and performance.

One of the researchers, Wendy Berry Mendes, says this effect may even be stronger for athletes, “because physical exertion drives up adrenaline levels, they’ve got even more nervous energy to channel.”

I one time read that the adrenaline rush we feel from something like a roller-coaster or an exciting movie is very biochemically similar to the stress response we experience before something like a job interview or a hard day at work.

The raw energy in itself is never necessarily a bad thing; it all depends on where we direct it. If we are wasting it all on concerns, worries, and negative thoughts, then we have less energy to concentrate on doing a good job. The same is true no matter what environment you are in, whether it is in the office, at home, or on a football field.

But when students in the experiment were told that their nervousness was positive, they were probably no longer thinking, “Oh no! I am so worried that my mind might go blank!” and instead their inner voice began saying, “Aha, I feel the energy and I am pumped!”

The meaning behind the emotion makes all the difference. It is the arrow telling us where to focus our attention; and where attention goes, energy flows.

With practice I believe we could all do better at transforming our negative energies – like anxiety, frustration and depression – into a more focused and positive form of concentrated energy, like that which I describe in my recent article on flow.


The power of belief and meaning

The only difference between the two groups of students was that one believed their nervousness was good; so when they became more aroused during the exam it meant something positive and beneficial was occurring.

How we interpret the meaning of our internal experiences can have a world of difference in how we behave and act. Two individuals can have very similar pasts and memories, but one may look back at those memories and feel crippled, while another looks back and is inspired by all the things they have learned.

While we may not always choose what we experience, it is always the individual who chooses what to take away from that experience – and that is part of what makes humans so self-empowering (and at the same time so self-defeating).

When something negative is happening to us we often feel helpless, as if it is out of our control; but if we take our experience and put a positive frame around it, then it becomes an ability and not a crutch.

Click here to read a more recent article I wrote about beliefs: Beliefs and Your Map of Reality.


Letting the energy build

The students who were told that nervousness was a good thing also showed greater signs of stress through a saliva test. This may imply that because students found their nervousness to be positive, they were less willing to fight or resist it, and more willing to let it build up. The more, the better – right?

And maybe they are right, because the more energy that builds up, the more focus they can apply towards answering questions correctly. Perhaps it was even this difference that allowed these students to score better on the GRE in the first place – they let the energy flow through them.


Too idealistic or a path towards a better self?

I admit these findings and suggestion can sometimes sound a bit too fanciful or idealistic. At the very least channeling our energy in such a way is “easier said than done.” But certainly this is something worth practicing.

If through the power of our beliefs we can shape our reality in subtle but effective ways, then this is something worth our effort and attention. Hopefully future studies will reveal more about these psychophysiological mechanisms and how we can use them to build both a better self and a better world.


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