How to Manage Nervousness and Overwhelming Fear
Do you want to learn not only how to manage your nervousness, but also how to harness the energy that builds up when you are nervous and transmute it such that it amplifies your charisma and stage presence whenever you have to perform/speak in public?
Nervousness can feel overwhelming, sometimes to a point of paralysis. It’s a disabling, disempowering feeling. It is often not within your voluntary control as your entire system can feel hijacked despite your best efforts. You get impulsive. You start forgetting what you know too well in normal situations. You might even realize you are losing your ability to think rationally or even just to think.
Situations that trigger this feeling are often high stakes scenarios where we know we or our performance is going to be judged, assessed or criticized. We know we could fail, not be good enough, rejected or embarrass ourselves. Things like taking an exam, test, or interview; speaking in public, performing in front of a panel that will judge you like when pitching an idea, performing for an audience or in a talent show. Or even when you are about to talk to that very special person for the very first time.
You are quite acquainted with your body’s physiological response to nervousness. Your heart starts racing out of control, your body temperature rising, and you feel yourself beginning to perspire even in cold weather. There’s that feeling of utter discomfort in your belly like a nausea. And when you open your mouth to speak, you feel your voice quivering. You feel your hands and legs shaking and you are convinced everyone can see everything you are feeling.
How do you manage such nerves in that moment when they start overwhelming you?
- Acknowledge and accept your nerves: Do not try to fight them, or to make them stop or go away, or to suppress them so that you don’t feel them. Do not try to hide or conceal them. Doing any of that always only aggravate them. Instead, acknowledge them, accept that you are feeling nervous. You are feeling like this because you are about to do something momentous and of high importance with high stakes. Remind yourself that it is totally natural, totally normal, and even necessary. Necessary? Yes! This is how we all evolved to deal with stressing situations. You are not an anomaly to be feeling this way. You would be if you didn’t feel nervous.
- Breath deep and slow: Consciously take slow and deep breaths. There’s nothing more calming than breathing deep and slow. It triggers the parasympathetic (part of the autonomous) nervous system that helps you to relax, to calm down and recover from stress or danger whether real or imagined. This is fighting fire with water. But not any kind of water, water that was made to fight exactly this type of fire.
- Relax your body from tensing up: When your brain fires signals that trigger the body’s physiological response that we have discussed above, one of the things that happens is that your body tenses up involuntarily. Also, if you try to fight or hide your nerves you tend to tense up further and contract your muscles unconsciously because you are trying to hold everything down. So, to manage the nerves the right way, you have to consciously relax your body and muscles continuously. Relax your neck, relax your shoulders, relax your stomach, and relax your arms and legs. Do not allow your body to tense up and contract, relax and expand.
These first three points are what you should focus on before you take the stage. Focus on breathing deep and slow and on relaxing your body. As you keep breathing and relaxing your body, you will not only limit the nerves from escalating, but you will activate the parasympathetic autonomous nervous system that calms, relaxes and helps restore normal physiological functioning: normal heart rate, normal body temperature etc.
If you focus on suppressing the nervousness, what happens is the opposite. They intensify. Why? Because you are focusing on the stress and the danger. Stress and danger activate the sympathetic autonomous nervous system that says alert, you are in danger; get ready for fight or flight. That triggers your brain to send even more signals to the heart faster, faster, pump more blood to power the muscles, breathe in more oxygen. Hence your feel your heart pounding and you breathe even faster.
It’s a positive feedback loop and the only solution is to send a signal to a different counteracting system. Most systems in the body are like this. That’s why we tend to do more of what we do more of. Feel more of what we feel more of. Why? Because we often focus on those things when they start. It doesn’t matter whether you are focusing on it to stop it or to get more of it. The system is designed to activate and run more aggressively anytime it receives any signal. The first signal triggers start and any subsequent signals to the same systems says more, more, more.
The body often has one system to keep a response going and a totally different system to stop or counteract the response.
The sympathetic autonomous nervous system starts and keeps the nervousness raging and driving you mad. But it is the parasympathetic autonomous nervous system that can calm the storm and pull you out of the mayhem. Acknowledge and accept; then breathe, relax, loosen your body, expand.
Before you take the stage
At this point, the nerves have not completely disappeared. And that is a good thing. Because they are no longer an obstacle in your way or a stumbling block to your performance. In fact, they are a steppingstone. You are on track to recruit them to work for you and amplify your charisma and stage presence. And here is what you want to do as you to take the stage to keep your momentum building in that leverage direction.
- Remind yourself that you are in charge not your biology, not your nerves, and not even your audience. The stage is yours and you are in charge. Don’t allow other people make you feel rushed or feel that you need to behave in a certain way or do things you didn’t plan. Take your time. Other people are there to hear what you have to say not the other way around. So, when you get up to go to the stage, walk in charge. When you get there stand in charge, begin in charge. When you take any step, step in charge. Anything you do, do in charge. Your focus at this point is I am in charge. Nerves stay with me, but I am in charge.
- Stick to the plan you prepared for your performance. One mistake that people make is that in this highly volatile state, they start mentally changing the plan of their presentation or performance. They start adding or subtracting things. Do not do that. You had taken time to deliberate what you will do and practiced it. Stick with it. Not rigidly of course. You’ll make sensible improvisations as need be. What I am saying is, do not suddenly make abrupt changes to your plan while you are nervous. Do not try to integrate the new cool things you’ve just seen other performers do. Trust the work you did. Stick with it, improvise but be authentic and true to your own material and practice.
- Lastly, remind yourself that this audience is on your side. Even if it is an assumption, it is most often true. They are on your team. They want you to succeed. They want you to win. They want you to amaze them, surprise them, thrill them. And you know who is in charge to do that? You! That’s why you are there. There’s nothing standing in your way. There’s nothing opposing. There is no obstacle. So, don’t create one. The best thing you want to take with you at the end irrespective of the outcome is that I gave my best, did my best, didn’t hold myself back.
This is how you manage nervousness. Your situation might require some minor adjustments to this system. If such are needed, I trust you to make them. That’s why you are here. You can start even now thinking about the adjustments you might need to make if your nerves work against you in an exam situation. Or a driving test situation. Or an interview situation. Or a public performance like speaking, playing a sport, auditioning in a talent show, auditioning for an acting role, pitching in front a judging panel etc. Think on that.
In the next article we will dive into how to harness nervous energy as a public performer and make it work for you not against you. Manage ✅, Harness, transmute to amplify your charisma and performance energy/presence.