Butterflies, a dry mouth, feeling dizzy, at a loss for words, rapid heartbeat, fidgeting. All symptoms of a nervous response. Nerves can strike at any time and when they do, they can knock you for six. Whether it’s public speaking, a job interview, important meeting or even a social event, nerves can lead you to say or do the wrong thing and embarrass yourself.
But it doesn't have to be like that! Most successful people have experienced extreme nerves at some point in their careers. The trick is to enhance nervousness and anxiety to help you perform better.
Tony Bennett is a famous example. In an interview Bennett said that the best piece of advice he received about how to control nerves was from Frank Sinatra…
“Sinatra told me not to worry about being nervous, that it was a good thing since it showed that I cared… and if I cared, the audience would also care and root for me. He was absolutely right and to this day I still get butterflies when I go on stage, but I know that it’s a good thing.”
You too can learn how to control nerves.
The first thing to realise is that it’s completely normal to feel nervous. It’s simply part of how we are wired. Feeling nervous or anxious is your body’s natural reaction to potential threats. What is also known as the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Your senses sharpen, your intuition kicks in, you become energised, animated and focussed. All useful as you prepare to take action.
Imagine that you’re about to speak in public. You're feeling anxious and nervous. You start to panic. Your instinctive reaction… 'I need to control my nerves to perform well'. So what do you do? You probably try to calm yourself by breathing deeply and using relaxation techniques.
Yet research by social scientist Alison Wood Brooks suggests that people in fact perform best not when they try to relax but when they take simple steps to get excited about the challenge at hand.
This is an extract from an interview Brooks gave in the Harvard Magazine. She discusses her experiments on reappraising anxiety as excitement.
“Anxiety and excitement, are very similar emotional states. Both emotions are high-arousal, signalled by a racing heart, sweaty palms, and high levels of the stress hormone cortisol.”
Her studies have found that people do perform better when they assign those sensations a positive meaning, calling them “excitement,” rather than “nerves” or “anxiety.”
Brooks completed a series of experiments. She asked two groups of people to perform tasks which made them feel nervous. These tasks were singing and speaking in public. One group was asked to say aloud to themselves “I’m excited” the other group were told to say “I’m calm” or “I’m anxious”.
Brooks reported “If you say, ‘I’m excited,’ you’re likely to actually feel excited. The karaoke-singing participants used a video game with voice-recognition software that scored singing performance on measures such as volume, pitch, and rhythm. People who said, ‘I’m excited,’ before they sang actually sang better on this objective performance measure. In the public-speaking experiment, independent judges found that excited people seemed more persuasive, competent, persistent, and confident.”
How to actually control nerves: what's the key?
The physical symptoms you feel with excitement and anxiety are the same. But when you’re feeling anxious your brain is telling you… “hey, you’re nervous, you are going to do badly".
On the other hand when you’re feeling excited your brain is saying… “this is great, I can’t wait, I’m really going to enjoy this.”
Your mind-set is causing the barrier here. To control your nerves, you need to adopt an opportunity mind-set as opposed to a threat mind-set.
Most of us think of nerves and anxiety as negative traits and excitement as a positive trait. So, the key is to trick your mind into thinking you’re excited rather than nervous.
Next time you’re feeling nervous, say to yourself, “I am excited, I am so excited.” Think about the opportunities that may come your way if you perform well.
Remember, you’re in control of your mind. Focus and engage it to turn your nerves into positive energy.
Working out how to control nerves is different to overcoming more extreme feelings of panic. You will need to approach the two differently.