Panic to power

What makes you nervous?

What makes you nervous can be very personal. One person’s favorite challenge is another’s worst nightmare, and can cause feelings of avoidance, shakiness, or even nausea.

Topics that trigger worry can be:

  • Personal concerns around health, finances, romance, appearances, and more
  • Task-related issues like public speaking, athletic competitions, performances, driving, job interviews, or exams
  • Worldly problems, including climate change, global conflict, earthquakes, pollution, or economic instability

Common characteristics of nervousness

When you are anxious or stressed, you may experience the following:

  • Physical
    Sweating, increased heart rate or blood pressure, headache, muscle tension, stomach distress, sleep disruption
  • Emotional
    Worried, fearful, nervous, anxious, overwhelmed, uncertain, feeling lost
  • Cognitive
    Difficulty with memory, word-finding, and learning; negative or fear-based thinking that can disrupt productivity, focus, or sleep

Origins and purpose of nervousness

Nervousness and fear are part of human historic, adaptive, survival biology. It has kept many life forms alive for thousands of years, helping with escaping or defeating predators.

Fear is a complicated emotional and physiological response to uncertainty, threat and danger. It can be very constructive when it alerts you to potential harm and triggers the chemical reactions our bodies need to respond quickly to ensure safety.

This preparation the mind and body offer as a response to a perceived threat is quite physical, preparing the body for running, fighting or other major physical activity. It is known as the “fight, flight or freeze” reaction where chemicals from the brain and glandular system are released preparing the body to move fast, fight hard or freeze, hoping to be left unnoticed and unharmed.

Nervousness is a survival mechanism that is valuable but rarely needed in contemporary life. It won’t help if you run out of the room or attack the interviewer. For most contemporary challenges you need to pay attention to what you are thinking and how you are interpreting the situation to not trigger unnecessary fear and nervous discomfort.

What can you do?

Repetitive and uncontrolled nervousness can interfere with normal functioning and affect mental and physical health. However, good worry can be motivating energy, leading to constructive action to prepare for a goal, take efficient steps to solve problems, research information, or learn new skills.

Turn nervous energy into positive action

  • Be aware
    Instead of denying or repressing your nervousness, notice what triggered the worry and then develop a specific plan of coping and positive action to turn off that alert signal and use the energy constructively.
  • Plan, prepare and practice
    If the worry is about a task, take time to make a plan of action, learn or prepare for what is required, and practice the skills needed. Seek out guidance, help, and support to increase your knowledge and comfort with the topic. The sum of these positive experiences will reduce the trigger of uncertainty, and your new knowledge and practice will cultivate confidence.
  • Take care of yourself
    Support your body and keep it well-resourced with healthy food, good sleep, regular exercise, water and fresh air. Aim for a balance in work and fun, time alone, and time with others. Avoid excessive use of alcohol or drugs as a way to cope, escape, or change your feelings. Caffeine and sugar are stimulants and will exaggerate the chemistry and therefore the symptoms of nervousness. 
  • Learn how to relax
    Add recreation and down time into your weekly schedule. Take time during the day at transition times or before and after challenges to take a deep, cleansing breath and follow it with some slow, calm breathing. Take a few moments to breathe and reflect. Sit for a few moments and imagine a scene of your choice that feels safe, peaceful and pleasant. Learn how to do Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Autogenics, Yoga, meditation, or other focusing methods to achieve deep relaxation and trigger restorative chemistry in the body.
  • Practice deep breathing
    Establish an internal rhythm to inhale and exhale. Take full, deep breaths using the diaphragm. Slow the rhythm down, letting the exhale be slightly longer than the inhale. Try breathing in, counting “1 – 2” and exhaling, then counting “1 – 2 – 3.” Repeat this breathing pattern for several moments and notice how you feel.
  • Stop the fear of fear
    Break the cycle of fear by reframing nervous energy as “excitement.” Use that energy for positive planning and action. Consider the presence of nervousness as evidence of your desire for a positive experience. Notice and name the fear (failing an exam), the opposite desire (to do well on the exam) and put your action into achieving that desire.
  • Positive thinking
    What you “tell yourself” about a situation can either trigger or calm a nervous reaction. Challenge and revise negative, self-defeating, fear-based or “what if…?” exaggerated thoughts. Turn those negative, frightening scenarios into realistic and reassuring understandings. Support yourself and stay calm with positive and realistic thinking.
  • Face your fears
    Search for relevant information, practice necessary skills, and make realistic and positive plans suited to your tasks and situation. Apply this preparation into gradual exposure to the tasks and circumstances. Start with the easiest part or example of the tasks and practice until it becomes easy to do calmly. Then move on to more challenging situations to build up your confidence. For example, to deal with nervousness about a job interview, start by practicing talking about your experiences and career goals with a friend or family member.
  • Build in recovery time
    The more you feel an accumulation of demand, challenge, and fatigue, the more you can feel overwhelmed and under-resourced. This undercurrent creates a generalized nervousness about your ability to handle something else. Look for opportunities to relax after a busy week, an event, a project, or exams. Plan for some down time after each term, season, and the end of the academic year. This gives you time to reflect, learn, grow, and allows time for your brain and your body to recover.
  • Share and connect
    There’s no need to suffer alone with nervousness. Most people can easily relate. Talk about your feelings and coping plans with friends and family members. You’ll be more reassured that your feelings are normal and temporary, you will enjoy the support and sharing, you may even take away more good ideas to help you cope or enhance your skills. If your nervousness has intensified into persistent anxiety, a friend or family member can support you by taking steps to find professional support for skilled and efficient resolution of symptoms.
  • Laugh
    It never works out well to take things too seriously. Find the positives. Look for humor in things. Keep an eye on the big picture. On a global scale, an unsuccessful job interview will not bring your world to an end, you just need to keep looking for that right opportunity. Your worst mistake might be your best life learning.
  • Enjoy your accomplishments
    Getting well prepared for your life opportunities and developing strategies for managing nervousness will result in an affirming sense of mastery and accomplishment. You may even learn to enjoy the rewards that come from feeling capable, confident and successful, allowing you to take on tough challenges.

Next steps

Experiment with these coping strategies and create your own toolkit for self-support and positive change. Make a note of your plan and refer to it when you need to remind yourself to put these choices into action.

Check out other campus resources and programs:

If you have questions

Contact the UBC Career Centre for any questions regarding the Launch Your Career in Canada event or career-related information.