Reframing Anxiety: Don’t Fight It, Just Change the Label

The words you use to describe your emotions make a difference

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Has anyone ever advised you to take deep breaths or engage in calming activities when you’re feeling anxious? According to Professor Vishton, this may be counterproductive. Here’s an easier way to alleviate stress.

Woman stressed with anxiety
Research shows that reframing the words you say when feeling anxious can reduce stress levels, by influencing the emotion centers of the brain. Photo By fizkes / Shutterstock

Reappraising Anxiety as Excitement

Certain emotions such as anxiety and excitement are more similar than you might believe. You can take advantage of this fact and the fact that language areas are strongly connected to many areas of the brain, including the emotion centers of the brain.

Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas are both located in their respective regions of the cortex, but a couple of synapses away, strong connections to the limbic system can be found. 

When we feel a particular emotion, it influences the language we use. Apparently, when we use particular words, it can also influence those emotion centers.

Harvard professor Alison Brooks has published research using a simple linguistic strategy for dealing with anxiety—reappraise that anxiety as excitement. When participants in her studies are feeling anxious prior to a karaoke singing or public speaking task, they are instructed to say, “I am excited.” 

This not only reduces the anxiety somewhat but also seems to enhance performance. Anxiety and excitement both involve states of high arousal, so the trick is to capture that high state of arousal for positive purposes.

Language and Emotion

Excitement is associated with activation in many regions of the brain, as is anxiety. If the source of the excitement or anxiety is visual in nature, high levels of activity will be found in the visual cortex in the occipital lobe. 

If the anxiety or excitement is caused by something you hear, then high levels of activity will be found in the auditory cortex, located in the temporal lobe. Both are also associated with diffuse frontal cortex activation. The primary difference for anxiety is additional activation in the amygdala and the sympathetic nervous system.

Usually, when people try to reduce their anxiety, they are urged to calm themselves—to reduce activation across all of the regions associated with anxiety. The Brooks method suggests instead that the anxious person use the power of language to alter the pattern of activation. By using your language, you can quickly change one into the other.

Enacting Physical Change

Professor Vishton offers another tip that he recognizes is counterintuitive for many people, but a wealth of solid data supports it. The language centers of the brain seem to connect to the systems in your body that regulate your expenditure of calories. 

In order to be more physically fit, think of the daily activities that you already do as exercise. You don’t have to physically change the activities, just associate them with that word—exercise—and your fitness level will improve.

Alia Crum and Ellen Langer of Harvard University recruited a group of housekeepers who worked at a hotel. The more appropriate term in the industry is room attendants. 

Working as a room attendant is physically demanding. You’re on your feet all day, walking from place to place—often up and down stairs—and pushing a vacuum cleaner back and forth. 

These activities stress many large muscle groups, from the muscles around the body’s core to the biceps and the triceps. Wiping down surfaces, sweeping, lifting trash cans, and carrying piles of sheets and towels all adds up to a lot of exercise.

Interestingly, most room attendants don’t think of them as exercise but as their job. They don’t head to the gym; they go to a hotel. 

Crum and Langer wondered if changing the way they described and thought about their jobs would change how their bodies reacted to it. They recruited room attendants from eight different hotels. 

Tomorrow’s article will reveal the results of this study and how the conclusions drawn can also apply to our eating habits.

Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.