Racing thoughts. Restlessness. Sweat. Dry mouth. Rapid breathing. Ahead of a big event, presentation, networking session, or interview, it’s normal to feel nervous. Calming those nerves isn’t easy, but it is possible.
“At times of stress, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and your breath may feel high, fast, and tight when this happens. At times of calm, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated,” says Liz Wootton, director of leadership and personal effectiveness at Human Nature Development. “Both systems can’t be active at the same time.”
It’s important to identify what’s making you anxious and take actionable steps to minimize the symptoms. Here are six recommended tips to lowering your nerves and going into your next work event with confidence.
Here are six ways to calm your nerves
1. Prepare accordingly
Preparation can help lower your stress, no matter if you’re going into an interview or a presentation. Write down speaking points and go through them ahead of time. Practice what you plan to say with a friend or coworker, and practice the words aloud so you’re prepared to say them in the moment.
If you’re preparing for an interview, GinaMarie Guarino, licensed medical health counselor at PsychPoint says, “Take some time to research the company, and create a list of the things you appreciate about the company. Also prepare a list of questions you can ask during the interview.”
2. Adjust your self-talk
“It is important to assess how you are talking to yourself and what you are thinking,” says Jolie Weingeroff, a clinical psychologist. “Check in with yourself and see if you are having self-defeating thoughts or are assuming the worst.”
Ahead of an important event, focus on positive affirmations, such as “you got this,” “you’re ready,” “you are going to kill this.” Avoid “I can’t do this,” “I don’t belong here,” or “I’m not ready.” Even if you feel underprepared, go into the event with the best possible mindset.
“Write out what you are nervous about on a piece of paper then crumble it up and throw it out. The idea is to throw the nerves out with the paper,” says Jessica Williams, CEO of JMW Career Consulting. In addition, “Write three to five career affirmations for the outcome of the event on a sticky note.”
If working from home, put the sticky note on your desk or computer. The goal is to eliminate your fears and focus on the positives. Remind yourself why you deserve the interview, why you were chosen to present, why your work is valuable, and what you aim to achieve. Having a goal in mind, no matter how minor, helps.
3. Take deep breaths
“[A] way to calm your nerves before and minimize stress, anxiety, and fear is to practice deep breathing exercises,” says Guarino. “The calm feeling can prevent your nerves from getting too tense, which will help you appear relaxed. Deep breaths can also help to keep your mind clear of anxious thoughts, which can clutter your thought process. This will help maximize your ability to communicate.”
Wootton suggests putting your hands on your belly and counting to four on the in breath and four on the out breath.
“Diaphragmatic, or deep belly breathing, is very important as it stops the shallow breathing we experience when anxious and allows you to get more oxygen,” Weingeroff says. She recommends trying the following actions:
Tense and relax your hand. Make a fist, focusing on it and holding it for 10 seconds and then release it. This is an active form of progressive muscle relaxation, which is a whole body method of relaxing your muscles by tensing and releasing them.
Activate the Dive Reflex. When the Dive Reflex is activated, the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) takes over from the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system and automatically slows breathing, slows your heart rate, and has a calming effect. You can activate it by putting something cold against your cheekbones or splashing cold water on your face.
“Since it’s common to start breathing faster and more shallowly in times of stress and pressure, learning to become conscious of your breath can be extremely helpful,” says Elizabeth Su, founder of Monday Vibes, a personal growth newsletter.
4. Practice meditation
“You can practice mindfulness anytime, even with everyday activities like taking a shower. The key is to start noticing what you observe, without judgement,” Su says. “When you practice mindfulness with routine tasks, you will be equipped to bring these skills to unexpected, stressful situations.”
Weingeroff says practicing mindfulness is hugely important. When doing so, you direct your attention to the present moment. You can do this no matter where you are, or what you are doing, by bringing your attention to something in your environment and describing it in your mind, focusing on a sound, counting objects in your environment, or engaging in a cognitive task, like counting.
5. Practice somatic exercises
Somatic experiencing, a form of therapy, focuses on perceived body sensations. “Somatic work [is] an incredible tool for managing anxiety and stress,” Su says.
She says a somatic exercise called orientation can be done ahead of a big event to lower your nerves. Try these three steps:
Put your feet on the ground and begin turning your head to observe the environment around you.
Let your eyes gaze where they will and then identify three items. Label them, such as “chair," "bird," "leaf," "painting," "cinnamon," or "water bottle."
Turn your attention inward and identify three body sensations. Label them, such as "tingly fingers," "cold feet," "heart racing," or "sweaty palms.”
By orienting yourself, you are tapping into your instinctual, survival-based reaction to threat, Su says, and helping your nervous system regulate to the current situation.
6. Acknowledge imposter syndrome
“Imposter syndrome prevents people from developing confidence in their abilities to handle the responsibilities and challenges that come their way at work. For people who struggle with imposter syndrome, it can be hard to internalize the things that are done well, which is how confidence is built,” Guarino says. “It can be hard to know how much of your self-doubt is based on truth and how much is based on imposter syndrome.”
Williams adds: “Imposter syndrome creates the notion in our brain that we aren't worth listening to or we don't have information worth sharing. That mindset increases our nerves and causes anxiousness and unmovable fear.”
Most of us experience some form of imposter syndrome. Even actress Michelle Williams has said, “Every day feels like the first day and every day you think, ‘They’re going to fire me; I don’t know what I’m doing here; I don’t know how to do this; I don’t know why I’m here; everybody’s going to find out.”‘
Don’t let your fears stand in the way of your success. Sometimes the most rewarding—and beneficial—moments at work are the most uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing; this is part of the growth. Embrace the feelings of discomfort.
About our sources
Liz Wootton is the director of leadership and personal effectiveness at Human Nature Development, the brainchild consulting firm of her and her husband, Mark. They draw from their experience in leadership and business management—combined with unique perspectives drawn from martial arts, sports, music, theater, Alexander Technique, Myers Briggs and life coaching training—to create a person-first approach to work.
Jessica Williams is the CEO of JMW Career Consulting, which helps career navigators strive toward professional development and next level careers. Exploring personal growth, career pathways, and out-of-the box career transitions are what make Jessica an intuitive career consultant.
Elizabeth Su is the founder of Monday Vibes, a personal growth newsletter. After more than a decade in corporate America, she got her master’s degree at Columbia University in clinical psychology with a concentration in spirituality and mind-body practices and an advanced certification in sexuality, women, and gender. She has since dedicated her career to empowering women, teaching about emotional and spiritual wellness, and changing the rules of the game.