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Sometimes excitement can feel more like anxiety, and it turns out that they aren't that unrelated. Understanding the automatic reaction in our brains and changing our interpretation of the source might help us actually turn that anxiety into excitement.

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Go to CuriosityStream.com/Psych to learn more. [♪ INTRO ]. Picture this: you're backstage getting ready for a concert you've been practicing for for weeks.

You're nervous as all get out, while your friend backstage is smiling and excited. And they tell you, “You're not nervous, you're just excited too!” Depending on how they say it, you might be kind of annoyed. Like, you know how you feel.

On the other hand, maybe you’ve been excited about this show for a while. And trying to channel your energy into that feeling now could actually work. It’s called emotional reappraisal.

The basic idea is that your emotions are really a combination of your physiology and what you’re thinking. So, changing what you think can literally change the emotion you experience. For as long as psychology's been a thing, there's been some debate about what an emotion is, and how it's different from other kinds of thoughts and experiences.

But lately psychologists are pretty sure that there are at least two major components: some kind of automatic reaction your body is having, plus your interpretation of why you’re reacting that way. Like if your heart starts racing as soon as you see a car speeding down the road, you’ll probably experience that as the fear of possibly being hit, because you know the car could be dangerous. This latter part is called "appraisal," and it's basically your inferences about why your body feels the way it does.

If you can change the appraisal, though, you might be able to change your emotional experience. Like, if that car’s on a racetrack, maybe you’re just excited about the race. One study demonstrated this by recruiting 90 men to participate in an experiment while on a footbridge — either a shaky suspension bridge or a stable one.

The researchers showed the participants a picture and asked them to tell a story about it. Then, they offered the participant their phone number, saying they could tell them more about the study if they called later. When these participants — who were all straight men — were on the shaky, scary bridge, the stories they told had more sexual and romantic content.

And, they were more likely to call the researcher later … if it was a woman. But this didn't happen if they were on the sturdy bridge — or if the researcher was also a man. What these psychologists figured was happening was that on the shaky bridge, people were having a fear reaction — things like heart racing and sweating more.

But when the researcher was a woman, they interpreted it as sexual attraction, leading to the romantic stories and the increased phone calls. People had roughly the same physiological reaction on the shaky bridge — most reported being more fearful. But when given a situation that provided an alternate explanation, they took it.

We’ve mentioned this study before in the context of misattribution, where people can sometimes mistake fear for love. But with reappraisal, you can use this quirk of emotions to change your interpretation of your feelings on purpose. When 140 students were told that they had to deliver a persuasive speech that would be recorded and judged by a committee, they understandably started to get nervous.

But then, half the group was told to reappraise their reaction by specifically telling themselves that they felt excited — the other half was told to say they felt anxious. Although that didn't change how much anxiety the students reported about the speech, those who were told to say they were excited later said they did actually feel excited by it. But here’s the really cool part : the committee was totally real, and didn't know what group each of the speakers were in.

And they rated participants in the group that told themselves they were excited as more persuasive, competent, and confident than the group told to appraise their feelings as anxiety. So while you’re reappraising your emotions, you’re not denying your feelings — the people in the study still felt nervous. But the change in perspective helped them in other ways, both emotionally, and in their performance.

Psychologists think this works because you have two different pathways for how you react emotionally to things. Both of these paths start with the thalamus — that's a part of the brain that monitors all your sensory input. If something's really out of place, it sends signals that you should spring into action.

One signal goes to the amygdala —the fast path — and another to the cortex — the slower path. The amygdala starts a fear reaction, which is a big part of its job in general. Meanwhile, the cortex needs to process whether it's really something to be scared of, and then it can send a signal back to the amygdala to, you know, chill out, man.

This explanation seems to make sense when we actually look at the brains of people as they reappraise emotions, using fMRI. When people were showed negative scenes, their amygdala activated more than with neutral scenes. But when they were asked to reinterpret those scenes with a better story, their amygdala activation went back down.

And at the same time, parts of their prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of higher-level reasoning, were activated by that reappraisal. It's good to note that not everyone is equally good at doing this. Some people who are better at reappraising are referred to as having "affective flexibility." This means they're better at avoiding negative responses and focusing on the positive, and might also be a sign of better mental health overall.

But when you can, reappraising seems to help make your mood more positive. And since reappraising can help make stressful things feel less stressful, it’s pretty useful tool to have to help you chill out. If you want to learn more about psychology — or other topics in fields like history or science — we think we’ve found some videos you might enjoy.

And that’s why this episode is brought to you by CuriosityStream. CuriosityStream is a subscription streaming service that offers over 2000 documentaries and non­fiction titles from some of the world's best filmmakers, including exclusive originals. They have videos on nature, history, technology — even society and lifestyles — which is one of the reasons we like them so much.

There’s so much to learn! Like, there’s a show called Breakthrough that covers some of the recent developments in multiple fields, including psychology and astronomy. So you get to learn a little bit about a bunch of cool things, including the Cassini mission to Saturn and new developments in Alzheimer’s research.

You can get unlimited access to content like this starting at $2.99 a month. And as a special thanks to our SciShow Psych audience, you can get the first 30 days for free! You just have to sign up at curiositystream.com/psych and use the promo code “psych” during the sign-up process. [♪OUTRO ].