When I was in the fifth grade, I had a very strict and challenging teacher. A few months into the school year I started having to stay home from school every few days because of a chronic upset stomach. I would wake up with a trembling tummy, having to run to the bathroom every few minutes. My mom took me to the doctor a couple of times, and we submitted some lab work, but no concrete cause could be determined. The doctor finally told us, “It’s just nerves.”
Nerves. Butterflies in the stomach. Jitters. We’ve all dealt with nervousness at some point in our lives. It’s the mechanism that tells us when we should be wary of danger or risk — a healthy part of our bodies’ “fight or flight” defenses. And while nerves can be a positive thing in precarious situations, they can often leave us exhausted, frustrated, and sometimes even running to the bathroom.
According to an article by the University of Wolverhampton, here are some of the most common symptoms of nervousness:
- Dry Mouth
- Difficulty concentrating
- Stammering/shaky voice
- Feeling sick
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shallow breathing
- Biting nails/ fiddling
- Defensive body language (such as crossed arms and legs)
Any of these sound familiar? Whether it’s a job interview, speaking engagement, doctor appointment, or a first date, here are a few ways to cope with nerves*:
According to an article by Chris Lewis for the Maria Droste Counseling Center, anxiety causes us to take shorter, more rapid breaths which actually makes the anxious feelings worse because it limits the amount of oxygen getting into our systems. To counteract this, practice deep breathing. Close your eyes and breathe through your nose while counting to three slowly. Breathe out through the mouth for three seconds. Repeat.
Have an exam in the afternoon? Do some light jogging or yoga earlier in the day. Physical activity rids the body of excess energy, resulting in fewer jitters and a clearer mind.
If you’re nervous for an interview or a presentation, one of the best things you can do to stay calm beforehand is to prepare, prepare, prepare. Write out answers to hypothetical interview questions. Do your research. Know your audience. Practice what you will say. Covering your bases will help you walk into the situation with more confidence.
I don’t know about you, but telling myself to relax over and over just makes me more tense. But calming down may not be the only way to survive nervousness. According to this article we are able to trick our minds into turning anxiety into excitement. “Calm is a low arousal state; anxiety and excitement are high-arousal states. As a result, changing anxiety into calm requires flipping both the intensity (high to low) and the valence (negative to positive). Changing anxiety into excitement just requires one of those flips.” According to the study, subjects who positively pumped themselves up rather than tried to calm down before a stressful task were able to see those situations as opportunities instead of threats, and their excitement drowned out their anxiety. So pop in some headphones and rock out to your favorite song. Dance around your room. Or give yourself a pep talk like this one. Get excited about the best possible outcome of the situation.
Whatever circumstances you face, remind yourself that it is totally okay to feel nervous. It does not mean you are weak or less capable. Begin experimenting with different coping methods and learn how you can best channel your nerves into a positive strength.
Breathe deeply. Get excited. Go get ‘em.
*Nerves, while a normal experience, should not be confused with the more serious mental illness known as clinical anxiety. Be sure to also see our ongoing Myths and Meanings series where we’re talking about clinical anxiety in depth.
Image via Bethany Small