I want you to picture this image as vividly as possible in your mind:
You’re about to go on stage and deliver a speech to an audience of 100 people.
Quick – what just happened to your heart rate? Check your palms – are they sweaty? Are you breathing faster than you were prior to the visualization?
Congratulations! You’re human!
The vast majority of us become anxious when we are asked to do public speaking. But there are a multitude of other situations in our lives that can bring on this same experience of sudden nerves.
Since anxiety is a particularly uncomfortable emotion to experience, I thought I’d share three quick ways to reduce those feelings down to a much more manageable level. These methods are particularly useful for anticipatory anxiety when we need to compete, perform, or be tested in some way.
1. Why taking a deep breath is an annoying but essential piece of advice.
Don’t you just hate it when you’re nervous about something and someone says, “Just take a deep breath . . .?”
It’s annoying because it seems trite, but the reality is that taking a deep breath is helpful on many different levels.
First, taking a deep breath stimulates the Vagus nerve. This is a nerve that starts in the brain and wanders throughout the body to just about every organ.
The Vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, the system that our body uses to rest-and-digest, as opposed to the fight-or-flight mechanism of the sympathetic nervous system.
So, activating the Vagus nerve helps to calm us down. And one of the ways it does this is quite noticeable: it slows down your heart beat. This is particularly helpful because it’s very easy to feel your heart rate rise and become more anxious because of it.
The best way to activate the Vagus nerve is to take a deep breath through your nose such that you engage your diaphragm (stick your belly out on the in breath), hold it for a few seconds, then release the air through your mouth in a big sigh as though you were extremely relieved about something.
One of the other benefits of taking a deep breath is that you can use it as a reminder to stay in the present moment. Anxiety is often triggered by fretting about the past and worrying about the future.
Allow your deep breath to remind you to stay fully in the present moment. That breath can easily cue you to get out of your head and back into the world that is currently in front of you.
Finally, a deep breath just feels really good! And there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. When your body feels good, your anxiety will diminish.
2. Use positive visualization.
When you are feeling anxious because of an upcoming event, use visualization to boost your confidence and rein in your nerves.
Picture yourself engaging in the event, feeling confident, and performing well. You might also visualize a similar previous situation in which you did well and replay that in your mind several times.
Make sure you don’t replay negative events!
Another method of visualization is to use the “as if” technique. Act “as if” you have already achieved the outcome you want.
For example, the other day I presented a workshop to dog handlers who participate in dog sports such as agility competitions. Sometimes they or their dogs will have a trouble spot on the course that causes them to be disqualified from that particular event. Rather than focus on the trouble spot, I encouraged them to act as if they and their dogs had already mastered that skill. The increase in confidence of the handler is then picked up by the dog.
Try the “as if” approach the next time you face your own difficult course!
One caveat about visualization though: it is a technique that needs to be practiced. Unlike the deep breath which can be used anytime and anywhere, visualization takes a bit more time and is most effective if practiced at least on a daily basis.
3. Get some perspective.
Many times we get so hooked into our anxiety and the thoughts that accompany it that we lose perspective on the source of our anxiety.
Ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?”
If the answer is, “I could die,” then you have something to worry about!
But the reality is that most of the time the worst thing that can happen is that we might be embarrassed, be disappointed, or have to revise future expectations if we didn’t pass a test or something similar.
We don’t like to be embarrassed, be disappointed, or have to change plans, but it’s not going to kill us. Besides, I bet you’ve been through all of those things at some time in your life already, right? And here you are still able to read this post! (i.e., you didn’t die from it.)
Another question that is not only helpful to get anxious events in focus, but also life in general is:
“What do you want on your tombstone?”
Do you want people at your funeral to say,
“Yes, she passed that test way back in 2013. I’ll always remember her for that.”
“Remember the time he asked for a raise so calmly? What a guy.”
No, you want people to remember you for your values. For who you truly were as a person.
“She was so kind and loving to everyone she met.”
“He was always so genuine and authentic with people.”
So, in the long run, it’s likely that the event you are so anxious about today won’t be the thing that you are remembered for.
A little perspective can go a long way in helping you reduce your anxiety.
So remember: Take a deep breath, practice positive visualization, and get a little perspective. You’re well on your way to setting those butterflies in your stomach free!