Question: how do you perform when the stakes are high and the pressure is on?

Think about the last time you were about to enter a particularly stressful situation: a job interview, a final exam, a first date, a big race or performance, a BuzzFeed video shoot… (that’s my own most recent example, and more on this below.) What comes up for you?

If you’re like the rest of us, chances are you probably got flooded by some combination of negative emotions like self-doubt, fear and anxiety. (Which of course promptly triggered your body’s most unpleasant fight or flight responses like ridiculously sweaty armpits, clammy hands, hot cheeks, churning stomach and pounding heart.) AmIRight?

Any time we enter a vulnerable situation that involves risk, uncertainty or emotional exposure, we tend to get hooked by a collection of negative emotions that hinder our ability to perform at our best and maximize our potential.

So how can we continue to take the risks that are necessary for growth, or engage in challenging and upleveling experiences, without compromising our performance?

Two words: Positive Priming. 

Positive emotions are performance enhancers for your brain, proven to give you an advantage academically, personally and professionally.

But how?

Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s “Broaden and Build Theory” posits that positive emotions expand one’s outlook and imagination to a wider range of possibilities (e.g.. more creative thinking, better strategic problem solving, greater innovation, etc.) while simultaneously building personal resources that are necessary for steering through everyday challenges (e.g. resilience, social support, stress management skills, etc.).

In a nutshell, intentionally flooding ourselves with positive emotions directly before a stressful or challenging event can help to promote peak performance.

For example:
-Physicians primed with positive emotions correctly diagnosed symptoms 20% faster and more accurately than their non-primed peers (Estrada, Isen & Young, 1997)
-Students asked to think about the happiest day of lives right before taking a standardized math test outperformed their peers (Bryan & Bryan, 1991)
-People who express more positive emotions while negotiating business deals do so more efficiently and effectively than those who are neutral or negative (Kopelman, Rosette & Thompson, 2006)
-“I can give you an SAT test, a Sudoku puzzle, a crossword puzzle— any of 15 different tasks all requiring intelligence —and prime you to be happy, neutral, or unhappy. The happy group will outperform the others every single time.” – Shawn Achor, citing a study of 65,000 businesspeople

Pretty compelling, huh? And for the record, happiness isn’t the only valuable positive priming emotion—others include joy, serenity, hope, and love.

So how might you go about positively priming yourself before your next stress-inducing event?

One of my go-to strategies is cranking the volume on my favorite dance tunes and rocking out like my life depends on it. Sounds cheesy, but I do this in my car while en route to all of my speaking gigs and presentations to fend off jittery nerves and self-doubts. Most recently, I used this positive priming technique while driving to Hollywood to shoot a video for BuzzFeed and Hyundai called People Get Life Coaches for Their Daily Commute. (👈🏻 check out the video for proof of said car dancing 😜)

This video shoot hit on every component of vulnerability for me:

Risk: I have no control over the edit, will they make me look like a wackadoo?
Uncertainty: With no script, anything can happen. ANYTHING.
Emotional Exposure: A public appearance will open me up to scrutiny and judgement. What will people think?

By positively priming myself before stepping on set, I was better able to think of fresh ideas for my coachee, stay present despite the sweltering temperatures in the un-airconditioned car, and most importantly, have fun! (Which of course created more positive emotions that fueled me throughout the 12 hour shoot.)

If you’re not into dancing like no one’s watching, all good. Here are a few other ideas to try out before your next big test/game/presentation/meeting:

-Scroll through pictures on your phone of family and friends to relive precious memories and feel the love
-Watch a bloopers reel from a favorite sitcom for some giggles and a hit of amusement (Friends… just sayin’)
-Listen to a short meditation to bliss out and tap into some serenity
-Watch a moving video for a jolt of inspiration (Paralympics promos always get me!)
-Read an article about someone who bounced back from tragedy for a dose of hope (no shortage of these with so many natural disasters lately…)
-Watch a feel-good video for a splash of joy (puppies are my personal kryptonite)
-Reflect deeply on 3 blessings in your life and lean into gratitude
-Recall a time when you were at your absolute best to induce feelings of pride

Positive priming is an easy, quick and FREE strategy for maximizing your performance in every area of life. So the next time you want to bring your A game to the office, the classroom or the athletic field, what will YOU do to set yourself up for success?

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