How do you deal with nerves? This question seems to be recurring lately. I wish someone experienced could have answered it when I was just starting out as an athlete.
It’s hard to remember the feeling of nervousness itself. What stays etched in the memory and comes to mind is the incredible pleasure from the immediate relief from this self imposed stress. It’s interesting to note that nervousness only arises from our anticipation of an upcoming situation, but once the situation is upon us and has consumed our attention totally, we are no longer nervous.
Nervousness is a physical response from the body to stressful thoughts in the mind. To the brain, the thoughts of the mind are just as much a part of consciousness as the sensations of the body and the outside world.
Our body is this incredibly complex organism that is the result of millions of years of evolution, while the imagination is relatively new addition. To the body, stress from thoughts in the mind is as equally real as stress from stimuli about the outside world and does elicit a physical response.
So from the perspective of the body, the thought of imminent danger can provoke the same response as if there actually was actually a threat to you. As a reaction to this stress, our body prepares itself for action by releasing the stress hormone cortisol which stimulates our sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as fight or flight response.
It’s this response which creates endorphins to buffer pain and stimulates our adrenal glands which is often felt as the sensation we call butterflies in the stomach. I like to think of nervousness as emotional investment in an upcoming situation. It’s brought about by stress from a combination of our yearning desire for a positive outcome coupled with equally intense fears of a negative one; wants and fears always go together.
It’s because you care about the result of that exam, or the medical test, or sporting event that you become nervous, and the more you care, the more nervous you will become. We care, because we have decided that obtaining a positive outcome and avoiding a negative one is important to us.
No one else can make us want or decide something, we do that to ourselves. So, therefore all pressure is actually self imposed. To realise this is the first step towards mastering nervousness.
The next step is to obtain the right perspective of the upcoming situation. To do this we need to see it in the context of an opportunity for greatness instead of a chance for failure. Viewing it as an opportunity for greatness helps us to see the fun and actually look forward to the situation instead of dreading it, greatly alleviating the stress.
Stress and fun might seem like totally different things, but they are actually two polarities of the same thing, which is excitement, just in the same way that hot and cold are both extreme opposites of temperature.
If a room is too cold, it is impossible to take the cold out. Instead we have to add in heat to make it more comfortable. When we are stressed about an upcoming situation because we have decided that it is important to us, we can’t take the stress out.
However we can add in the fun by deliberately bringing to mind all the reasons why we can expect to be successful, the many enjoyable aspects of it, and the satisfaction that will ensue from a positive result. In this way we see the fun and not the stress, and very quickly the situation becomes a more pleasant fun one.
It also helps to come to terms with the worst case scenario. This is not easy to do, but facing our worst fears will free us from them. I do this when I am competing. The context is always different, but I imagining the worst case scenario, which is the current image that I associate with my feeling of the fear of failure. I then fast forward in my mind to my reaction to that negative outcome and always come to the realisation that it happens to people all the time, and that my mistakes will never define me, and that life will go on.
Without the fear of failure we are then free to completely focus on being our best. A small amount of nervousness is always a good thing and helps to bring out the best in all of us. Embrace it! It’s natural to care about an important upcoming situation.
However, if we let our mind run wild and it’s thoughts consume us, we become too nervous, provoking an overpowering physical response which always leads to a negative impact on our performance.
If we allow our nervousness to get the better of us, the pressure created from caring too much can be so intense that it fuses our wants and fears together in the crucible of the mind, making us desperate.
The next time you feel those butterflies in your belly as nervousness begins to consume you, recognise it arising in your mind from your wants and fears. Keep the right perspective, and focus more of the fun and less on the stress.