Why do we get nervous? - 10 tips for channelling and conquering nerves

22nd January 2018

Blame the cavemen.
Ever heard of ‘fight or flight’, the body’s age-old response to danger? Evolutionary biologists believe that when primitive man was faced with a perceived threat, such as the approach of a wild animal, his limbic system (which is part of the midbrain) immediately prepared the body to fight - if the animal was weaker than him - or to flee if the animal was stronger and might threaten his survival. Both these actions required a sudden surge of energy and awareness in order to ready his brain and muscles for immediate action.
 
 The science that gives flight to butterflies.
When we feel nervous, we often talk of having racing hearts and butterflies in our stomachs. These unsettling and often uncomfortable sensations are actually the result of our primitive fight or flight reflex kicking in. When our body perceives us to be in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar situation or attaches extreme importance to an event (such as a job interview, a stage performance or a sporting competition) our hypothalamus – part of our limbic system – sends out nerve impulses to our glands and smooth muscles to ready them for action. Simultaneously, it directs the adrenal medulla gland to release adrenaline into the bloodstream which increases heart rate and blood pressure, and helps to redirect blood and energy to the areas of the body which it thinks will be required for a rapid response; namely our muscles and heart. In doing so, blood is directed away from systems which are considered less essential for fight or flight, such as our digestive system. It is this contraction of the blood vessels around our stomach that causes the tingling sensation we know as butterflies, while the increase in blood flow to our muscles and essential organs means our heart begins to race and we feel hyper-alert and tense.
 
 Don’t fight your butterflies 
The aim of this science lesson is simple; it is to explain that there is very little we can do to stop the physical manifestations of ‘nerves’, since they are our body’s entirely natural and unavoidable reaction to unfamiliar and stressful situations. So, rather than worrying about your butterflies and your racing heart and feeling sure that they are going to ruin your performance or make you fluff your big interview, a far healthier and more realistic approach is simply to accept that EVERYONE gets nervous, EVERYONE gets butterflies, and EVERYONE is biologically programmed to react in the same way to stress. The major way in which you can differ from your peers in these situations, is to understand how your performance can actually be made to benefit from this rush of adrenaline and blood, and you can harness this surge of energy and awareness to make you stand out from the crowd rather than sink into it. 
 
 10 tips for channelling our nerves
 
So, how can we manage our nerves and actually use them for the benefit of our performance? Well, in my experience, this takes a two-fold approach, namely controlling them in the build-up to an event, and reacting to them during the event itself.
 
Pre-event: 
Here, the focus is all about arriving at the event in the most positive and relaxed mind-set possible.
 
1. Practice and preparation
It is said that practice makes perfect, and this couldn’t be truer than when we are preparing for an important presentation, interview or event. Research your subject so that you know it like the back of your hand, prepare for uncomfortable questions and hard scrutiny so that you aren’t caught on the hop and, above all, practise what you are going to say and how you are going to say it (aloud in-front of a mirror or audience if possible) so that when the big day comes you feel 100% confident in your subject and your ability to deliver a strong argument. You are likely to feel much lower levels of stress and tension in the build-up to your event if you are fully-prepared for what is to come.
 
2. Breathe away your fears
Deep breathing and relaxation exercises are a proven way of reducing feelings of stress, anxiety and panic. These can be undertaken in the days leading up to a big event to help reduce any built-up of tension. Critically though, taking a few slow, deep breaths as you are just about to step onto a stage or into an interview room will help to relax not only your body, but also your brain, according to the latest research from UCLA. In addition, research has shown that deep breathing can almost immediately alter your blood’s pH and lower your blood pressure. A relaxed you is a happy you, and a happy you is a confident you!
 
3. Vocal and physical warm up
If your voice is prone to shaking when you speak publically, this can be due to your vocal cords spasming as a result of the nerve signals sent from your brain as your fight or flight reflex kicks in. Taking deep breaths and undertaking a short vocal and physical warm-up prior to your performance should help to quell vocal wobbles and reduce tension. Head and neck rolls will help to loosen the shoulder and neck muscles, while taking a couple of deep breaths and exhaling with a ‘Brrr’ sound on your lips will help to loosen throat muscles and relax your vocal cords.
 
4. Ritual
Interesting 2016 research from Harvard Business School’s Alison Woods found that undertaking a short ritual before a big performance not only lowered a performer’s anxiety levels and heart rate but also improved the quality of their performance. The ritual used in Alison’s research included the performer drawing a picture of their feelings, sprinkling salt on it, reciting a countdown aloud before throwing the paper in the bin, but you could equally devise a short ritual to suit your own circumstances or situation. Sounds a little crazy I know, but rituals of this sort can focus the mind and take your thoughts away from the immediate feelings of ‘aagh I’m about to go on stage’ to somewhere much calmer and more rational, and this sense of calm focus will come across in your performance.
 
5. Positive self-belief
Positive mental attitude, or PMA, has long been the mantra of those at the top of their game, but when we delve a little into the science behind PMA we can understand just how critical it is that we flood our brains with positive thoughts before a big event. How Your Thoughts Program Your Cells, explains the process in more detail. Essentially, there are thousands of receptors on each cell in our body. Each receptor is specific to one protein, or peptide. When we have negative or angry feelings, each separate emotion releases a flurry of neuropeptides which connect with receptors and change the structure of each cell as a whole. When that cell divides, the new cell division will have more of the receptors which match with that specific ‘negative thought’ peptides. Thus, if you have been bombarding your cells with peptides from a negative attitude, you are literally programming your new cells to be negative. So, believe in yourself, and practice the art of positive thinking so as to ensure your mind and body are oozing positivity in the run up to a big event.
 
 During the event: 
Here, the focus switches from preparation, relaxation and positive thinking, to one of maximising the potential of our ‘fight or flight’ energy surge in order to deliver a strong, memorable and confident performance:
 
6. Accept that nerves are natural and healthy
As we have already discussed, it is vital that you accept that EVERYONE gets nervous and everyone is programmed to react to stress in the same way. Therefore, when you step onto the stage or into an interview room and suddenly feel your heart starting to race, your mouth going dry and your tummy doing backflips, instead of allowing these sensations to cripple you and convince you that you are about to fluff your big moment, simply think: ‘Wow, here goes my flight or flight reflex, this is a totally normal reaction, now let’s use all this excess energy to completely blow everyone away with the strength of my performance.’.
 
7. Get pumped! 
According to Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy, we can change how we feel by how we look and act. Her studies have shown that when we match our body language and verbal expression to our arousal state we can actually relieve our feelings of anxiety. So, her advice for those who are feeling nervous: ‘Get pumped! Stand like Wonder Woman for two minutes, and rather than trying to calm yourself down, say “I’m excited”. The best bit – according to her research, even if you don’t believe it will work, it still will. That said, your audience my wonder why you’re racing around the stage with your arms outstretched shouting about your excitement, so maybe find a quiet place to express your excitement levels just prior to your big event –the mirror scene from Cool Runnings springs to mind!
 
8. Believe positive over negative thoughts / perceptions / reactions
Research tells us that anxious people have a bias towards negative social signals and this holds true for public speakers too. A new Chinese study found that presenters with higher social anxiety levels spent more time looking at negative audience members (ie those who looked disapproving, bored or disagreeable) than positive ones (those who looked entertained, engaged and approving). The opposite was true of presenters with low anxiety levels. Not only that, but the anxiety levels of those with already high anxiety levels actually increased even further when they focussed on the negative audience members. The key lesson here: by training yourself to focus on positive thoughts, positive self-perception and positive audience members you will naturally lower your own anxiety levels during a presentation or public event which will improve your performance level and impact. 
 
9. Don’t worry about your nervous tics
If you are prone to nervous tics such as lip licking, hand wringing or playing with your hair when you are nervous, you can often become so obsessed with trying to curb these gestures that it will detract from your actual performance. Whilst any excess in nervous body language is best avoided, a recent study by the Canadian Career Service found that your overall assertiveness and friendliness is actually far more important in governing how you are perceived, than any minor nervous tics or habits. Those who were less friendly and assertive in the study were judged to be far more anxious than those who were openly friendly and confident, irrespective of any nervous habits. The conclusion from the study: People needn’t obsess about nervous tics in situations where they would naturally be expected to be a little nervous anyway. Focus instead on the larger impression you make. By learning to come across as assertive and friendly, it is likely you will conceal much of your anxiety and be judged far more positively.
 
10. Raise your game!
Sport psychologists have long recognised that those who get to the top of their game are the athletes who are able to harnessing the extreme pressure of elite competition to achieve supreme results. These are called clutch performances, and are thought to harness ten common attributes: focus, intense effort, heightened awareness, being ‘up for it’, absence of negative thought, full absorption, confidence, control, increased motivation and enjoyment. Performing to a higher-than-normal level under immense pressure is not unique to sport however, and those in the business arena should also seek to use the nervous energy generated by a high-pressure situation to exceed their expectations and excel in their delivery and performance.
 

About Cambridgeshire Elocution
Cambridgeshire Elocution is run by vocal coach and presenter Charlotte Grundy. Charlotte works with individuals who have lost confidence in their voice and aims to help people communicate clearly, effectively and with personality. Charlotte believes that the key to changing the way we sound is through having a clear understanding of how the voice works. For more information, visit www.cambridgeshireelocution.com