You might think that completing a degree in positive psychology guarantees imperviousness to negative emotion or self-doubt. Maybe it does for some people, but I’ve always been quite sensitive (oversensitive, perhaps). It’s pretty much a visceral reaction. To give you an idea of what I mean, a guard at the Museum of Modern Art once scolded me for getting too close to a painting, and tears actually welled up in my eyes. On the other hand, tears well up when I see beauty or moral good, so it may just be that I experience emotions strongly in general. It can still be embarrassing.While little pangs from daily interactions with the world can linger, it’s particularly difficult to climb out of the quicksand of negative self-thought. It takes down my confidence when I most need it, which makes it harder to think of good things about myself. And when I try to think about good things about myself, it’s tough to believe them.
Recently, I’ve started performing music out in public, a highly anxiety-producing activity for me. In college, I switched my major from piano performance to composition in great part due to performance anxiety. But performing is part of the deal as a songwriter, so I have to get up in front of real human beings and sing, an action that is entirely reliant on being relaxed. Why would I do this to myself? I’m not quite sure, though I thought it might get easier. It hasn’t, yet. I would walk you through the thoughts that I have when I start to get nervous, but I actually have no idea what they are aside from a fuzzy concern that things will go wrong, followed by some self-flagellation about not having prepared enough, and then back to the fuzzy concern.I need something to help other than the tequila shots so commonly recommended, something visceral to give me a boost out of my anxiety-tunnel so that I might have proper cognitive function again.
The first idea I had to combat my anxiety was to try to smile. You may already be familiar with the research on facial expression feedback. The idea is that not only do our facial expressions show the world what we’re feeling, but they can also cause us to feel an emotion. For example, we smile because something makes us feel happy, and we also feel happy when we smile. The experiment that is most often cited involved participants holding a pencil either with their lips or with their teeth while watching a funny video. The people holding the pencil with their teeth tended to engage muscles associated with smiling, and they also rated the video as funnier than the other group, showing that using these muscles caused a little positive emotion.
I’ve tried just putting on a smile before a show, but it mostly makes my stomach turn even more. I just can’t find a genuine smile when I’m that nervous. I suppose I could try holding a pencil in my teeth before going on stage, but it doesn’t seem all that convenient.The body speaks louder than the face
Recently, researcher Hillel Aviezer and his colleagues have begun to study whether facial expression or body language is a stronger indicator of emotion. In this study, people watched videos of tennis players who had just gained or lost a point without knowing which circumstance it was. They had to guess based either on facial expression or on body language, viewing either just the face with no body shown, the body with no face shown, or both the face and body shown. Participants in the conditions viewing the bodies, with or without the faces, were much more accurate in their ratings.
This research shows that other people’s perception of body language is more accurate than the perception of facial expression, but it made me wonder if body position might be a stronger intervention for an individual, as well. Postures do, indeed, have the feedback effect that facial expression has, and though I haven’t seen any comparative research, it seems to be more effective for me.
Researchers Amy Cuddy, Dana Carney, Caroline Wilmuth, and Andy Yap have found that just one minutes of taking a power pose can lower cortisol levels (a hormone associated with stress), increase testosterone levels (a hormone that lessens fear), increase the capacity for cognitive function, lower stress, and increase feelings of power and the tolerance for risk-taking. This is just right for someone who needs to take the stage.In her TED talk, Amy Cuddy described three power poses used in the various studies leading to the above findings: a superman position in which the chest was open and lifted and the hands were on the hips; a position in which a the person was in a chair with their ankles crossed on a desk, hands knitted behind the head; and a position in which they were leaning their chest and head forward over a table with their arms like pillars beneath them, pressing into the table. All of them involved open chests and expansive limbs, which are positions that I can manage on stage to some extent.
This is slightly more easily said than done when my body is trying its damnedest to crumple up into an impenetrable, invisible ball as though a grizzly bear were in the room. I also sit at a piano, which makes it pretty appealing to just to hunch over. But, as soon as I can actually get my shoulders back, I do feel a deep and fairly immediate change. It’s a little like my solar plexus is filling up with a soothing molasses of courage, and the white noise of anxiety fades a little.
Combining visceral and cognitive
It’s at this point that I can begin to grab hold of my thoughts. I can remember to take a breath, think of my purpose in having created this music, and imagine the first few notes in my head before I actually touch the piano. That visceral change gives me enough of a lift out of the quicksand that I can use cognitive interventions, like thinking about myself as a friend would think of me, or remembering a time when I got positive feedback after a show. I can much more easily grab hold of those thoughts and experience the emotion that goes with them. This gets me back on solid ground.
Cuddy, A. J. C., Wilmuth, C. A., & Carney, D. R. The benefit of power posing before a high-stakes social evaluation Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 13–027, September 2012. (Revised November 2012.)
Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21 (10), 1363–1368.
Aviezer, H., Trope, Y., & Todorov, A. (2012). Body cues, not facial expressions, discriminate between intense positive and negative emotions. Science, 338 (6111): 1225 DOI: 10.1126/science.1224313
Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(5), 768-777.
Cuddy, A. J. C. (2012). Your body language shapes who you are. TED Talk.
The Old Vic Theater courtesy of Chris Beckett
In the limelight courtesy of ~Oryctes~
Superman (Demonstrating power pose 1) courtesy of millermz
Two photos of author demonstrating power poses courtesy of Genevieve Douglass