It’s very personal! One person’s favorite challenge leading to accomplishment and reward is another’s worst nightmare making them avoidant, shaky and nauseous. Topics that trigger worry can be personal (health, finances, romance, appearance); task related (speaking in public, an athletic competition, an artistic performance, academic performance, driving, taking an exam, a job interview); or even worldly (environmental change, global conflict, earthquakes, pollution, economic instability).
Panic to power
What makes you nervous?
Common characteristics of nervousness
Sweating, increased heart rate or blood pressure, headache, muscle tension, stomach distress, sleep disruption
Worried, fearful, nervous, anxious, overwhelmed, uncertain, feeling lost
Difficulty with memory, word-finding and learning; “what-if” ruminations of anticipated negative outcomes; repetitive review of past negative experiences; negative self judgment; obsessive negative and fear-based thinking that disrupts sleep or capacity for positive, productive focus
Origins and purpose of nervousness
Did you know that nervousness and fear are part of our historic, adaptive, survival biology? It’s kept many life forms alive for thousands of years – escaping or defeating predators.
Fear is a complicated emotional and physiological response to uncertainty, threat and danger. It can be very constructive – alerting us to potential harm and triggering 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, literally 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.
Clearly, this survival mechanism 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 we need to pay attention to what we are thinking and how we are interpreting the situation to not trigger unnecessary fear and nervous discomfort.
What can you do?
Repetitive and uncontrolled nervousness can interfere with our normal functioning and affect our 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
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 utilize 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 even practice the skills needed. Seek out guidance, help and support to increase your knowledge and comfort with the topic. For example, if you are quite nervous about a job interview, there's help here at UBC. 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 and able to meet demands with healthy food, good sleep, regular exercise, water and fresh air. Aim for a balance in work and play, 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
Build in recreation and “down time” into your weekly schedule. Take time during the day at transition times or before and after challenges to do a cleanse 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, count “1 – 2” and exhaling, count “1 – 2 – 3.” Repeat this breathing pattern for a several moments and notice how you feel.
Stop the fear of fear
Break the cycle of fear 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.
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 relevant information, practice needed skills, make realistic and positive plans suited to your tasks and circumstances. Apply this preparation into gradual exposure to the tasks and circumstances. Start with the easiest component or example of the tasks and practice until it becomes easy to do calmly. Then move on to more challenging aspects building up confidence based on actual ability. 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 an academic year. This gives you time to reflect, learn and grow as well as 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 with taking steps to find professional support for skilled and efficient resolution of symptoms.
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 reward that comes from feeling capable, confident and successful – able to take on tough challenges.
Start now and experiment with these coping strategies. Design 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. Here are some other campus resources to explore: