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Nervousness: What is it and how to overcome it?

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Nervousness is a feeling that almost everyone can understand.

Whether you’ve felt it during an important presentation, before a job interview or an exam, or even on the way to meet your partner’s family for the first time, nervousness can be uncomfortable and distracting - and in some situations it can hold you back from being the person you want to be.

Nervousness is both a physiological and psychological emotion.

When you’re nervous, you might experience physical sensations such as a dry mouth, sweaty palms, and ‘butterflies’ in your stomach. These are all normal bodily reactions caused by your ‘fight-or-flight’ response.

Your ‘fight-or-flight’ response is the instinctive physiological changes that all humans experience when faced with a threatening situation. As adrenaline circulates through the body, your body prepares itself to respond to a dangerous situation, including diverting blood from your digestive system to your muscles (causing ‘butterflies’) or speeding up your breathing rate to maximize the flow of oxygen to the muscles.

Source: Psychology Tools

Your body responds in this way, regardless of whether your ‘know’ that the situation isn’t something you should or would run away from (such as an important presentation at work) and the sensations can instead be uncomfortable distraction - especially as one result of your ‘fight-or-flight’ responses is racing thoughts as your brain focuses on the perceive ‘danger’ making it difficult to think about anything else.

But nervousness is not just physical sensations, nervousness is also in the mind.

Self-doubt is something that even the most confident people can experience when faced with a situation they are nervous about. You forget all of the times you’ve succeeded, and instead focus on the ‘what-ifs’. Thoughts like ‘I’m going to embarrass myself’ or ‘I haven’t prepared enough’ pop-up - even when you try to reassure yourself.

This is very normal, but when combined with the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response, you can find yourself in a downward spiral, becoming more and more nervous.

Knowing which tools you can rely on to help break this cycle is very important. At doppel, our work is entirely focused on helping people to feel calm and focused in stressful or nerve-wracking situations and through our research we’ve come across a number of great solutions and resources that you can try when you’re feeling nervous.

It’s important to remember that not all tools work in the same way for everyone, and so do take the time to try different techniques until you find solutions that you find helpful.

One way to feel calmer is to bring your heartbeat back down to its resting rate by taking deep, slow breaths.

When you breathe deeply, you’re mimicking the way you feel just before you fall asleep or when you first wake up - two of the moments when the body is most relaxed. Your brain responds to these physiological signals and your heart rate and blood pressure will begin to fall. It doesn’t matter that you’re not in bed, the feedback loop between your brain and body is an innate biological link and it will help you to calm down.

This is something you can do when the nerves hit, but also is something you can practice daily to help build your mental resilience. We’ve blogged before about different breathing techniques you can try, so do have a look if you’re interested.

To help manage self-doubt, there are also a number of steps you can take so that you can face the task that’s making you nervous in the most positive way you can.

If you have time beforehand, try to take take fifteen minutes out to do nothing. In a 2017 study, researchers from Rochester University found that solitude can help with both relaxation and stress reduction. The researchers defined solitude as ‘being alone for a period of time with no access to devices, personal interactions, external stimuli, or activities.’ In four separate studies, the period of solitude lasted for fifteen minutes and the participants were asked to sit alone and try to think either positive or neutral thoughts instead of doing anything specific.

Something that doesn’t take much time at all is writing down a list of times where you’ve overcome your nerves in the past. This will help you to challenge your worries and end the cycle of racing thoughts. Writing down your strengths and then using them is something that can help in the long run too. In a study of 600 people, participants who took an online test to identify character strengths were then asked to use one of those strengths in a new and different way every day for one week. Participants who did this reported higher levels of happiness for six months after the week was up.

And finally, choose courage over confidence! Rebecca Newton, Business Psychologist and lecturer in management practice at the London School of Economics says that telling yourself ‘Yes, I'm a little afraid. Yes, I'm nervous. But I'm doing it anyway!’ is a great proactive step to take. She says it creates a “positive psycho-physiological response” which can help you to beat the nerves!

Good luck!


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