Sometimes no matter how calm we try to be, our nerves get the best of us. Leading up to a high-pressure situation, like a big meeting, presentation, or interview, we get stressed. There is a lot on the line, and we can spend a lot of time in our heads caught up in the “what if” and “not good enough” thoughts.
This is not only distracting and annoying; it negatively impacts our performance.
What if I told you there was a way to feel WAY better, MUCH quicker than just gritting your teeth through it or distracting the thoughts away (only to come back stronger)? And at the same time, helping you to nail your performance because you can be your most authentic, calm, and collected self! Read on to learn seven nervous system tips to be calm and in control to guarantee success at your next high-pressure event.
The secret is that it’s not about managing what’s going on in our heads. It’s about paying attention to our bodies’ stress response – how we physiologically (and subconsciously) react to stress – and using it to our advantage.
These tips will help you to regulate your nervous system before, during, and after a high-pressure situation so that you can feel more relaxed and in control!
They work by sending messages to your brain through your senses to override the “fight or flight” response. So you can access feeling calm on demand. And when we feel calm – we are more present, in control, and can put our best foot forward.
FIGURE OUT YOUR SIGNS TO STAY CALM AND IN CONTROL
No, not your astrology sign (although that’s a tip for another list). What do you feel in your body when you start to get nervous and activated? Does your heart rate increase? Do you get butterflies in your stomach? Do your thoughts start to race, or do your eyes scan the room, looking for danger? Does your breathing get faster or shallow? Do you feel a fast sensation inside? We can often tell when we are overwhelmed and feel anxious by the time it’s really bad, but with practice, we can start to notice earlier when there’s more opportunity to intervene and calm ourselves down.
Can you take some time to notice the sensations and where they are in your body? When you know them, you can do something to interrupt them – either before or while they are happening – to help yourself calm down. It’s helpful just to take a quiet moment to tune into your body and notice any signs of tension or stress when you think about the upcoming event – where does that show up for you? And then use one of the strategies below!
SELF MASSAGE YOUR WAY TO CALM
Our skin is a superhighway to our brain. We can use touch to signal to our body that it is safe and okay to be calm and relaxed.
My favorite techniques in a workplace or performance context are subtle and covert. Using the fingers of one hand to massage (with a very light touch) around the base of one finger on the other hand. Run your hand up and down your finger and notice any feelings. You might sense tingling or sensitivity. You can also run the tips of your fingers of one hand along the palm of the other hand. Do this for some time and notice the feeling of calm that comes. Another spot you can try is the sides of your arms, again with a light touch, starting at the top of the arm, moving your opposite hand down to the elbow (do it with arms crossed, hugging yourself at the same time). This is called havening, and it activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
EYEING UP THE ROOM
Our eyes are a major conduit of sensory information to our brain and nervous system. They are essentially an extension of our brain into the world. When we are stressed and overactivated, our eyes often scan for danger. You might recall this happening when you are nervous at a presentation! You might talk fast, look around fast, not zoning in on the people in the room. Take a moment to allow your gaze to slow down a bit. Landing more slowly on one object, then another in the room. Pause on one object and observe anything about it – color, shape, etc. Once you’ve taken a good look, look at something farther away, slowly again allowing your gaze to move. You’ll notice that any quickening in your body (breath, heart rate) starts to slow down too!
COME TO YOUR SENSES TO STAY CALM AND IN CONTROL
One of our first and oldest senses is smell. Our brains react very quickly to smell and taste (because it is an evolutionary survival mechanism – not eating something that would harm us). When we feel overwhelmed, eating peppermint candy (which can be sugar-free if needed) can help to override the activation in our nervous system and give us a bit of space to begin calming down. Take some time to notice the flavor. Notice the heat of the peppermint. Another similar tactic is running cold water over your wrists, hands, or face. If you are starting to feel stressed and nervous, this can help to bring your “brain back” to your body and away from the overwhelming thoughts. Try pairing this with another one of the techniques.
LENGTHEN YOUR EXHALE
We’ve been told since childhood to “just breathe” when feeling nervous and overwhelmed. And although sometimes in the moment it’s hard (try the peppermint or cold water trick first if it feels too hard to breathe), breathing slowly and deeply tells your brain it’s ok to calm down. The easiest breathing pattern I have found when I am stressed is just to have a longer out-breath than in. Breath slowly, deeply, and allow your out-breath to be longer than your in breath.
DO AS I DO NOT AS I SAY
When our body is in a stress posture, our brain interprets that as a sign of danger. So when our shoulders are hunched, or our jaw is clenched, the brain reads that as a sign of ongoing danger. Deliberately relax your shoulders. If they can’t on their own, give your arms and shoulders a firm set of taps with the palm of your hand – starting at one arm going up, then down the other. Repeat a few times. You can do the same with your jaw – if you tend to hold tension in your jaw, tap along the side of your jaw with your finger. It will start to relax, and everything else along with it!
CO-REGULATE WITH OTHERS & NATURE TO STAY CALM AND IN CONTROL
Our bodies are designed to relax and calm down when we are in the presence of other people who are also calm, relaxed, and present. Deliberately spend time with people who make you feel safe and calm. This also goes for pets! They can help to regulate our nervous system too. Our loved ones, friends, and anyone that we feel we can be relaxed and ourselves with. And the same goes for nature – our bodies naturally regulate in nature. Spend some time in the trees. Or in an open area like a park where you are not close to tall buildings that make you feel closed in. If you can get your feet or your body on the ground, that’s even better. Again, that sensory information tells your body it’s safe – to be close to the ground, in open, natural spaces.
Conventional advice is to use these tactics while you’re in the room doing the stressful thing. Which is great. And you should. You can slow down your gaze, massage your finger behind your back, and pop a peppermint before you go in. You can plan which strategies will work best in your particular situation. And even just having them ready to rely on will make you feel calmer.
But there is a deeper way of using these strategies as well. You want to activate your calming response as much as possible in the days, weeks, and hours leading up to the event. Ideally, whenever you think about or start to worry about the upcoming event, activate your calm! This means you will get less over-activated each time, and your thoughts will spiral less often. You can even do these activities WHILE you are rehearsing for the big day – maybe you use the havening touch while you are rehearsing, or you practice your interview outside in nature, bare feet on the ground with long exhales. Activating calm while you are doing the stressful thing will help you to get that feeling back quicker during the stress because you’ve primed your brain for it.
And these nervous system techniques pair amazingly with thought and belief change techniques that we use in hypnosis and NLP. Mastering your nervous system will help you to perform better. But mastering your nervous system AND clearing out those negative thought patterns and beliefs for good is the secret sauce (let’s just get rid of “what if I fail” and “what if I’m not good enough” so our nervous system doesn’t get activated by those thoughts anymore!)
Crystal Gartside’s hypnotherapy sessions include customized nervous system advice & techniques based on your specific stress response, background, and goals. She will help you shift the thoughts and beliefs causing your stress for good. Also, check out Crystal’s upcoming online nervous system reset classes!
If you feel inspired to work with Crystal, she’d love to hear from you.
Blog Author: Crystal Gartside
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