I want you to picture a career-defining moment you have experienced: a presentation given to your team, an idea pitched on a new business venture to a group of investors, or even proposing to your partner. When faced with potential life-altering decisions and challenges, the body reacts in certain ways. In these moments, have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach? How about an Increased heart rate? Or, maybe you start to sweat? These sensations are among the many ways our bodies physiologically respond to stress. How you interpret these feelings can impact how you perform in these situations. Last month, we discussed the importance of interpreting your performances. Today, we will continue that conversation by discussing the importance of interpreting nerves more effectively.
How the Body Responds
The body reacts in many ways during stressful situations. One of those is through the release of a few different stress hormones: Adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol. What these three hormones have in common is that they are released when our body enters into “fight or flight” mode. This is a product of our sympathetic nervous system, and these stress hormones help to ignite how we respond to stress. Some stress levels are considered beneficial and can increase productivity and performance, but when your stress levels get too high, performance begins to suffer.
When our bodies experience stress, there are common physical reactions: elevated heart rate, “butterflies”, perspiration and shakiness. Part of the reason our stress levels reach this overly elevated state is how we interpret these bodily responses, or how we interpret being nervous. Society has created the narrative that being nervous is a bad thing. If you are nervous, then you are not confident in your abilities. Nothing could be further from the truth. While these responses are common when you experience stress or are being challenged, I want you to think of a time when you were really excited. Did you have butterflies? Was your heart beating a little faster? Were you jittery? Did you start to sweat more?
What we fail to realize is that our body has extremely similar reactions to stress and excitement. When you experience these physical and physiological reactions to stress, if you can learn to change how you interpret those feelings, then you can use nervousness to your advantage. This isn't your body's way of telling you that you are not prepared; rather, it’s your body’s way of preparing you for what's to come.
Presentations Were Never Easy
I love speaking in front of groups. It’s a chance for me to help others develop their skills and make a difference; plus, I like hearing myself talk. I get excited when I have the opportunity to present in front of people, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't nervous every time.
I have not always loved presenting in front of people. In high school and throughout my undergrad program, I feared public speaking. While I knew it had to be done, I always went into them nervous, which led me to question what I was doing. Often, I would ask myself, “What if I forget something? What if I screw up? What if they laugh at me? What if I fail? So walking into presentations, I feared the worst, which would cause my heart rate to increase more and more the closer I got to my presentation, and it definitely showed. I was never very good.
When I got to Graduate school, that all changed, I started to understand the power of interpreting these nerves. In Sport Psychology, talking in front of groups of people is a common occurrence, so this was an area I needed to improve. And boy did it ever. I realized I was looking at it all wrong. I feared the worst, assumed I would fail and felt that being nervous meant I was not ready. I started to look at things differently. I started thinking about how much fun I would have, what would happen if I succeeded, and that these nerves were actually my body's way of telling me how excited I was. Once I made this fundamental shift in my interpretations, my public speaking abilities started to improve drastically. I thoroughly enjoy speaking in front of people now, commanding a room with the information I am providing, and, while I still get nervous, I now welcome those nerves with open arms.
Make the Change
There are a couple of ways that can help you reinterpret being nervous. First, taking a deep, deliberate breath with a belly focus can go a long way and activates what's called the rest and digest response (the opposite of fight or flight), which helps your body and mind relax so that you can think more effectively. A deliberate breath consists of an inhale through your nose where your stomach fills up with air, followed by an exhale out your mouth where are the stomach contracts. Try to find a consistent cadence with your inhale and exhale, two or three deliberate breaths can be extremely beneficial when experiencing stress.
Second, start looking at the other side. Earlier, I gave the example of asking myself, “what if I fail?”, but then I began to ask myself, “what if I succeed?” This is one step you can take, start looking at the other side of the equation. Your self-talk will play a key role. Instead of thinking about how you might not be good enough, think of all the qualities you have that make you good enough. Instead of thinking, “Oh no, I am nervous”, consider something like “hell yeah, I can’t wait!”.
Finally, search for the evidence that states you don't have what it takes. Counterproductive thoughts are often associated with interpreting nerves as a negative. However, oftentimes those negative beliefs are factually incorrect. There is no data that shows that your negative statements are true. This is not about saying positive things to yourself because that doesn't work for everybody, and there can be times where there is no evidence to confirm those positive statements. Rather, if you say “I can't do this” because you are nervous, you can use the evidence that you have done this before as a way to dispute your original statement.
It might be a new situation, so you may not have any evidence, but one thing you can always do is take a deliberate breath. You can always do is be in charge of your self-talk and how you view being nervous. It's about finding a way to help you make the shift of interpreting your nerves more effectively.
One quote that has always stuck with me is “pressure can burst pipes, but it can also make diamonds”. When you experience nerves, how you interpret them is will make or break your ability to perform your best. Being nervous does not show that you are incapable but instead indicates that you care about what you are about to do. What you are about to do has some meaning to it. So take it in stride, choose to feel excited over feeling nervous. Make the fundamental shift and interpret nearest where you want to, so you can use them to your advantage, and see what difference it makes.
By: Joey Velez MA, MBA