As human beings, our brains are put together, essentially, to only see between Danger and Not-Danger.
It makes sense: When you’re living in a tent on a hill, fighting sabretooth cats and warring against other tribes, it’s easy to see why our brains evolved to view danger as physical threats that we need to run away from. Our brains are just not good at distinguishing between that same sabretooth cat and, say, presenting a big report to the bosses.
You still tense up, your shoulders knotting, and your stomach twisting. You’re paralyzed, and even though all you have to do is present a report, or give a speech, or deal with another colleague, you would give anything to trade places with someone else. As far as your brain is concerned, the office is a battleground and you’re in danger.
You can’t work in these conditions.
Here’s what you need to know. This advice won’t help you immediately, but it will build the foundation for how you can get through the day, and the next day, and maybe the next.
You’ve probably heard this told to you before, but it bears repeating: The anxiety isn’t real.
Sure, the feeling is real. Absolutely. You’re not making up the way that your stomach is slowly turning inside out, or the way your shoulders feel like they’re trying to compress together. But the reasons why you’re feeling anxious aren’t real. They don’t exist.
Here’s an experiment. Take out a piece of paper and a pen. Think about what is making you stressed, such as your upcoming presentation, and then write down all the things That Could Go Wrong.
These are some examples of things that maybe, could, perhaps, someday could go wrong:
- You could screw up
- You could mumble your delivery, or forget something, forcing you to repeat yourself or reread your notes
- The projector or your laptop might not work, forcing you to find a way to fix that issue
- You could say something that’s incorrect
- You might not be prepared enough
None of these are big deals, are they? Seeing them like that, these are all situations that you would be able to deal with.
But that’s not the point of this exercise. The point is to ask yourself, “What’s happening now?”
Those bad things you were worrying about? They will never happen. Sure, you might mess up during your actual presentation, but likely not in the same way you’re imagining. Your anxiety comes from a made-up scenario in your head.
Don’t beat yourself up about this. After all, this is sort of a good thing. You have a terrific imagination and an ability to look at a situation from all angles, to anticipate and prepare.
This only becomes a problem when it starts to affect you badly in the present. Because the only time that matters (arguably, the only time that matters ever) is the present.
But grounding yourself and realizing that you’re worried about made-up scenarios doesn’t instantly fix the physical reactions of anxiety. That’s okay; you’re allowed to feel anxious. Those feelings will go away. You don’t have to act on those feelings (i.e running away and not dealing with the presentation), but you also shouldn’t feed them by dwelling on them.
Do this instead:
- Focus on the now. Breathe deeply in and out. Livestrong’s Julia Michelle writes, “When people are anxious or stressed, they tend to take shallow breaths, breathing from their shoulders. Proper breathing involves expanding the lungs and diaphragm, without involving the shoulders.” Sit with your back straight to your chair, breath in with your chest, all the way, and contract your abs when you breathe out.
- Think positively. I don’t mean that in a wishy-washy New Age way. I mean, seriously, go ahead and envision awesome things happening. It’s an effective countermeasure to negative thoughts.
- Often, our brain will take a quickening of the heart or raising of our body temperature to think that it’s Panic Time. This is because our body is fulfilling the conditions of panic (fast heartbeat, sweating, etc.), so the brain thinks, “Oh, hey, time to panic.” Tell yourself that these feelings are not caused by anything external. Your brain is making them up. It’s just a feeling, nothing more.
- Tell yourself: You will likely screw up, in a small way, somehow. And that’s okay. Everyone does it. Mistakes are how people learn.
This isn’t a quick fix. If you’re a person who deals with bad anxiety on a daily basis, you’ll need to watch out for it often, and catch yourself when you find yourself dwelling on negative, made-up scenarios.
But it does get better, with time. You’ll get better at it. And the next time you have to give that presentation, you’ll feel less stressed. And that’s good.
- Think: Why am you anxious?
- Write a list of things that could go wrong
- Realize that none of those things are happening to you right now
- Allow yourself to be able to make mistakes — after all, that’s how you learn