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More PsychNotes: Anxiety

May 30, 2017       

Why Relabeling Anxiety as Excitement Doesn't Work
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Don't be positive -- be realistic!

Recently, in a national news outlet I read advice for parents when their children were anxious about an upcoming important event such as a major sport competition or taking the SAT. One suggestion was to use the cognitive therapy technique of “reappraisal” and to help their child relabel their feelings as “excitement” rather than “anxiety” or “nervousness.”

One of my pet peeves as a cognitive therapist is how people misinterpret the concept of reappraisal to mean the same thing as deluding themselves into believing “Everything will be okay” or “I'm perfect just as I am.”

No, these beliefs aren't necessarily true and making yourself or someone else believe them creates an irrational, albeit positive, belief which can be just as harmful as believing “Nothing will ever work out” or “I'm just a miserable nobody.”

Cognitive reappraisal is not about relabeling everything as positive, but is about being realistic. It does not work if it is not realistic. For instance, when I took the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) to apply to graduate schools, I was anxious because I said to myself “You have to do well or you will never be a psychologist and your life will be ruined.” When I realized my self-talk was causing the anxiety I didn't say “You're just excited--you'll do fine. Don't worry about it.” Instead, I told myself “If you don't do well, your life won't be ruined, it will just be different. Calm yourself, focus, do your best, and what will be will be.”

Why pretending to be excited when anxious can be harmful

1) Anxiety is information. Relabeling emotions as excitement might cause a person to ignore important information about the situation. For instance, what if the anxiety was telling a person that s/he was not prepared and needed to practice more. Relabeling the emotion as excitement might prevent the additional practice and cause the person to fail.

2) Need to learn how to manage anxiety. Ignoring anxiety is not the best way to manage it because a person doesn't learn to change thought patterns realistically and how to calm him/herself. If a parent relabels the child's experience as “excitement” a time may come when the child needs anxiety management skills and has none available because s/he wasn't taught to identify and handle anxiety.

3) Need to distinguish emotions. Excitement and anxiety can feel very similar but a person needs to know the difference so as to know what to do. With a child, it can be helpful for them to learn to distinguish between excitement and anxiety, but it is not helpful to relabel anxiety as excitement because that teaches a child to ignore emotions. For instance, “You are feeling nervous because this is important to you. You also might be feeling excited because it can be fun to compete.”

4) Being overly positive is irrational. Cognitive therapy is about learning how to be rational. When a person can evaluate emotions rationally they are more equipped to solve problems. Being overly positive can be just as irrational as being overly negative. Neither end of the spectrum helps in problem resolution.

Don't be positive – be realistic!

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