Bloomsbury Publishing
Ideas
January 12, 2017 6:08 AM EST
Ian Robertson is the author of The Stress Test and a Distinguished Scientist at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas  

Jason paced the corridor outside the boardroom before his presentation. He could hear his pulse in his ears, and his mouth was dry. The last time he felt like this, he told himself to relax, but it didn’t work. So this time, he tried something different: “I feel excited.” Suddenly, his symptoms—the racing pulse, the twisting stomach, the sweaty palms—started to energize him. The boardroom door opened. He performed brilliantly.

This story might be fiction, but at its core lies a very real truth. The science of emotion tells us that our bodies respond similarly to many different emotions, including anger, excitement and anxiety. And recent research has shown that if we verbally put those symptoms into a different context—by saying “I feel excited” when feeling stressed, for example—we can trick ourselves into following suit. The key to all this is the neurotransmitter and hormone norepinephrine. When you’re too stressed or scared, your norepinephrine levels surge well beyond their sweet spot; when you tell yourself you’re excited, they sometimes fall back.

Of course, this trick won’t work for every emotion: it’s a lot harder to reframe stress as relaxation, because those two conditions have entirely different physical symptoms. Nonetheless, in the right context, stress can become a source of positive energy—not just a by-product of anxiety.

This appears in the January 23, 2017 issue of TIME.

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