Anyone can become nervous at work — from the C-suite to the entry-level employee and everyone in between. To a degree, a little nervousness while you’re on the job can keep you on your toes and make it clear that you’re stepping outside your comfort zone to potentially higher productivity and innovation. However, too much nervousness, especially when it’s uncontrollable, can interfere with your ability to complete tasks and ultimately hinder your chances of success.
To help manage work-based nervousness, try these basic, science and medicine-based techniques.
1. Deep Breathing
Deep breathing — that is, slow, relaxed respiration that involves your abdominals — can combat stress because it increases the amount of oxygen your brain gets. The higher level of oxygen stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which combats your stress response, slowing functions like heart rate and initiating feelings of calm.
2. Self-Massage, Yoga, or Exercise
Normally, when your brain perceives a threat, the sympathetic nervous system releases noradrenaline, which causes your muscles to tense. This tension is part of the fight or flight response — essentially, your muscles tighten up so they can respond quickly and powerfully to the danger present. You’re not necessarily in any real danger in work situations that make you nervous, but this physical reaction occurs nevertheless. Self-massage, yoga, or other light exercise gets the tense muscles to relax and send a “there’s no danger” message to the brain. It can also release endorphins, which are natural chemicals that make you feel more content. If you can’t step into an empty conference room for one of these activities, don’t worry — even getting areas such as your tongue and eyes to “let go” or your jaw to unclench can make a difference.
3. More Sleep, Better Food
When you don’t eat right and are starved for adequate rest, you put your body under physical stress, all while depriving it of the nutrients, vitamins, and fuel it needs to function optimally. As a result, your hormonal balance can get out of whack. Specifically, levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, usually increase, while “feel good” hormones, such as serotonin, go down. Increased irritability and anxiety are common side effects, so making a regular date with your pillow and staying away from “junk” meals and snacks can head off work nervousness. Try to get at least 7-9 hours of sleep per night, and try filling your lunch bag with nutrient-dense superfoods like quinoa, spinach, avocado, berries, and lean meats.
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4. Smiling at Others or Looking at Pictures of Those You Love Smiling
Mirror neurons are neurons in your brain that fire both when you do something and when you see someone else doing the same behavior. When you smile at someone else, their mirror neurons fire, and they want to smile back at you. Then, when you see their smile, your own mirror neurons fire, and your body releases the hormone oxytocin. This substance is associated with feelings of calm and closeness and, therefore, can keep nervousness somewhat in check.
When stress triggers the fight-or-flight response, blood — and, subsequently, heat — travels away from your limbs and into the core of your body. Your brain takes this bump in core temperature and interprets it as a signal that you’re in distress (which you are). If you hold onto a warm mug of coffee, slip on a pair of cozy gloves for a few seconds, or tuck your feet in a heating pad under your desk, you interrupt this process. What’s more, research suggests that the feeling of warmth and positive emotions, such as happiness and calm, are linked. By stimulating yourself physically with a little heat, you subsequently trigger good feelings.
6. Practice — Work to Become More Competent
Many times, nervousness can come from a lack of confidence. When you boost your confidence, the nerves tend to lessen. While there are things you can do on the spot to remind yourself how awesome you are, there’s no substitute for working hard to become better at the things that make you nervous. If it’s public speaking, then push yourself to practice. It may lead to more nervousness in the short-term, but it will handle it in the long-term — helping you effectively decrease or even eliminate your public speaking anxiety going forward. This can be applied to any situation, whether it’s taking client calls, talking with heads of other departments, presenting in meetings, coding, and what have you. Whatever activities you find yourself feeling most nervous about, make a definite effort to become more competent at them. This will increase your confidence, which will, in turn, decrease your nerves.
It’s natural to feel nervous at work occasionally, especially in situations where there’s a lot on the line or you’re not sure how others are going to react to you. Even so, this nervousness doesn’t have to get the best of you. Making some tweaks to your body, environment, and attitude is a viable strategy for getting your jitters back where they belong — under control.