Getting over nerves

Posted October 13, 2011, by Josie Chun

It’s perfectly normal to feel a little nervous before going in for an interview, giving a presentation, sitting an exam or starting a new job. But for some of us, the butterflies in the stomach and resultant anxiety can be overwhelming and can seriously affect our ability to function and perform. If this is the case, you need to find ways of dealing with the stress so you can be the best you can be and show just what you’re capable of – and land that job or give a compelling presentation.

Fear of public speaking is believed to be the single most common phobia, affecting as much as 75 per cent of the population. Other forms of performance, such as job interviews, can be just as jitters-inducing.

Fight or flight

The fight-or-flight response is the body’s response to stress, either physical or mental/emotional. Any stimulus perceived as a threat activates your nervous system to release stress hormones, such as adrenaline. These hormones produce physical effects such as accelerated heart rate and breathing, increased blood flow to our muscles, heightened arousal, flushing and sweating as our bodies prepare to either fight or flee. This is an ancient physiological response that developed to enable us to survive in nature.

Nowadays most of us rarely encounter wild animals as we go about our daily business – but the same response can be triggered by other situations, often inappropriately. Negative thoughts can fuel and augment this response, so the key is to break the vicious cycle.

Breaking the loop

In stressful performance-type situations such as interviews and presentations, we can get caught up in a negative spiral of thoughts that only serve to reinforce the anxiety – like catastrophising (fearing the worst), minimising (underestimating your ability to cope or perform) or focusing excessively on the anxiety itself. The consequence of such thoughts, of course, is increased anxiety that will cause you to become tongue-tied and unable to perform at your best. The thoughts therefore lead to self-fulfilling prophecy.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) attempts to break the link between these situations and your emotional and behavioural response. It is a system of identifying and challenging our unhelpful thoughts and beliefs in order to change our behaviour.

Mandy Edkins, a counselling psychologist trained in CBT, often treats people with performance anxiety. ‘Most of us want to be well perceived by others, and this is the type of situation where we are likely to be tested on our knowledge, performance and experience. We are “putting ourselves out there” in terms of inviting criticism or rejection.’

‘Unfortunately it tends to be anxiety about the anxiety that brings people undone. While we can generally cope with feeling a bit uncomfortable, the fear that our anxiety will somehow get “out of control” and incapacitate us is generally what brings people to a standstill,’ says Edkins.

The ABCD method

The first step to overcoming performance nerves is to spend time really identifying what your thoughts and fears are. Are they reasonable? Is there anything you can do to address them?

Cognitive behavioural therapists such as Edkins often encourage clients to fill out diaries following the ‘ABCD’ method. This method can be adopted by anyone and keeping such a diary will get you thinking about situations in a different way.

A – Activating event: What is actually happening? What is the objective truth? For example, ‘I am attending a job interview.’
B – Belief: What are my inner thoughts and beliefs about the situation, what is my subjective view? For example, ‘all the other candidates are better qualified than me,’ ‘I always mess things up,’ or ‘everyone will think I’m an idiot.’
C – Consequence: What will/did happen as a consequence of A+B? For example, ‘I got really nervous, couldn’t concentrate on the questions asked of me, gave poor answers and the interview went badly.’
D – Dispute: How can I challenge B? Are my thoughts and beliefs totally accurate or could there be another way for me to think about this? For example, ‘I must have the relevant qualifications or I wouldn’t have been invited in to interview,’ or ‘I don’t always mess things up – I am capable. If I don’t know a particular answer that’s OK – it doesn’t mean I’m an idiot,’ or ‘I have every right to be here today – it is a great opportunity to find out if I would like to join this company.’

By challenging your old and often inaccurate beliefs and replacing them with new, more helpful thoughts, you can then choose different behaviours and emotional responses – and this will lead to new and better outcomes.

Other practical tips 

Preparation is key – the more prepared you are, the more relaxed and confident you will feel. Research, make notes and outlines, prepare answers for questions beforehand – and practise, practise, practise!

Be sure to get a good night’s sleep and eat well the night/morning before the event.

Before the event, use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, stretching or meditation – train your body to calm down and relax. Other techniques such as positive self-talk and visualisation can also be very useful.

It’s important to keep things in perspective and don’t catastrophise. Ask yourself, ‘what is really the worst thing that can happen?’

For some people, props such as a glass of water, notepad or visual aid can be helpful.

Remember to concentrate on what you’re saying rather than how you’re coming across; try to connect with the material and your audience.

View a certain amount of anxiety as positive – the adrenaline can actually make you sharper and perform better. In fact, many people function better under pressure or with that little edge of anxiety – it helps keep you on your toes.

Keep in mind that everything gets better with practice, and these situations are no exception. The more interviews and presentations you give, the easier it will get – so embrace every opportunity to keep gaining experience, and rest assured that improvement will inevitably follow.

Fake it ‘til you make it! Even if you’re feeling jittery on the inside, just smiling and making eye contact will make you feel more confident and relaxed.

Empower yourself

It’s important to remind yourself that in a situation such as a job interview, it’s a meeting of equals. It’s not just about you being judged – you, too, will be judging your interviewers to see if they represent a company that you want to work for. It is a meeting to determine if, together, you are a good fit.

Similarly, if you are giving a presentation, you are the expert and you have things to say that people want to hear. Try to remember that you are the one with the authority in this situation.

‘Remember that the audience are just people too … we can tend to perceive our audience as a scary bunch of super-critical “parents” who are going to judge and reject us. The reality is that we are all imperfect, vulnerable human beings. And that’s OK,’ says Edkins.

Oh, and if it helps, you could always try picturing the audience in their underwear.

Josie Chun

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