You know that feeling.
Stomach churning, wishing the ground would swallow you up, you feel like a bag of nerves with sweaty palms and tunnel vision. Causes include having to deliver an important presentation or meeting the in-laws for the first time?
I know I’ve had this feeling.
What’s happening to you when you feel nervous like this?
There’s actually quite a bit happening inside you when you get this nervous!
In the moment you just want to fast forward through the experience as quickly as you can so you can to survive it.
Afterward, however, I encourage you to debrief. By understanding what’s happening on the inside, you give yourself more control on the outside.
After all, we want to be in control don’t we? Especially when we’re just about to do a big pitch or intend to create a great first impression.
Public speaking doesn’t have to be scary
We have so many chemicals running through us, we could be mistaken for mini-chemical factories. And because those chemicals influence our behaviour, you might think that we are helpless.
Good news: we’re not.
Brain research has proved over many years now that our minds can change our bodies. Our minds, or more precisely, our thoughts trigger the release of certain chemicals which in turn has an impact on behaviour.
Let’s look at the example of giving that all-important presentation. Your body would be pumping out both adrenaline and cortisol, the two major stress hormones. Adrenaline gives you that immediate feeling of increased alertness, otherwise known as your flight or fight response. It’s followed by the slower-releasing cortisol, the hormone responsible for making sure the right parts of your body are getting the right amounts of blood sugar. It’s fine for blood sugars to be diverted to the organs in most need for a while but this means that other, non-critical functions like your immune system are put on hold.
Here’s the interesting thing. If you don’t recognize giving a presentation as a threat in the first place, these chemicals wouldn’t be released at all.
I think this is amazing. So, although we might be chemical factories, we have some say over our reactions. Getting in control of your thoughts is a habit well worth investing in. It can literally change your day-to-day life.
Given that, let’s re-visit our example of giving that big presentation or speech to a group of people. It could be at an interview, a board meeting or a wedding. It means a lot to you to get it right so you put in the time to prepare.
Scenario #1: Adrenaline and cortisol do their thing
You stand up to give your talk and everything comes into sharp focus. ‘Oh my goodness’ you think ‘why ever did I get myself into this position? I’ve got nothing to say of importance and they’re going to see right through me.’
You feel as though your legs will give way under you. Your hands feel clammy and they might even be shaking.
‘Pull it together’ you tell yourself but by now you can hear your heart beating so loudly you wonder if the audience can hear it too. You panic as you think of launching into the first line of your rehearsed talk. ‘Oh my goodness’ you think ‘I’ve forgotten how it starts! Come on, just get it over and done with’ you tell yourself, ‘then I can get out of here’.
Scenario #2: You’re at the helm of your chemical factory
You stand up to give your talk and everything comes into sharp focus. You’ve already connected with your audience by chatting to someone in the first row.
You’re ready and excited to get started and your audience can see this in your smiling eyes. You’ve rehearsed the talk but it’s the audience that will help you bring the whole thing to life.
‘We’re in this together’ that’s your self-talk. ‘I’ve put the work in, I’m prepared, now it’s time to enjoy this!’ If there had been much in the way of the stress hormones here, they were soon dispelled.
Instead, testosterone, the ‘personality’ hormone would be detected. This is the hormone responsible for assertiveness (yes, both in men and women*), motivation and a sense of power amongst other things.
Would you prefer to feel calm and confident when you have to give a presentation or speech?
Having stress chemicals in your bloodstream for a little while isn’t terrible, but if you overdo it, it’s bad for you. Longer-term it weakens your immune system which means you will fall ill more often.