By Dr Lynda Shaw, neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist.
From exams to presentations to interviews, important occasions can leave us feeling overwhelmed and anxious, hindering our ability to function and perform, even to the extent of provoking panic attacks, or feelings of overwhelming exhaustion or nausea. Neuroscientist, psychologist and recalibration specialist, Dr Lynda Shaw, reveals her top 10 tips on overcoming fear before an anxiety-inducing event.
- Look after your wellbeing. First and foremost in the run up to the big occasion focus on your wellbeing to ensure you are the best version of yourself.Prioritise sleep and eat well so you don’t feel run down or exhausted, and exercise regularly as it releases the happy hormone serotonin, which will make you feel more confident and increases the blood flow around your body. Avoid excessive alcohol, caffeine and sugar as these can also trigger anxiety, and instead enjoy whole foods, fruits and vegetables so your body is energised and well fuelled so you are ready to face your challenge. Listen to music and relax. Create a playlist that makes you feel happy and energised. When you start to feel anxious or just before the event listen to this playlist; distractions are often very useful at this point.
- You already know it but be prepared. Practise makes as close to perfect as we can be. The more we know something inside out, the more it becomes second nature. Being tuned in to yourself, using your inner resources and established neural connections and memories will all help in your performance.
- Question your intrusive thoughts. Thoughts are not facts. When we recognise this we can try to avoid the vicious cycle of rumination and where our negative thoughts dictate how we feel.Ask yourself why you are worrying or fearful by trying to look at the situation as if you were talking to someone else in your shoes. Look at the advantages of trying your best and overcoming your fears and try to rationalise why things are the way they are. You can take better control if you imagine being relaxed, you will naturally slow down your breathing and your brain will respond by actually being more relaxed.
- Challenge yourself with kindness. Put yourself in a micro situation where you know your anxiety may be triggered and observe how that feels. If you are fearing a presentation perhaps show it first to a trusted friend, family or colleagues, to help you feel safe about putting yourself out there making it feel more manageable and reducing catastrophic thinking. Mindfulness including practising gratitude, deep breathing or meditation can be very powerful. Imagine your fears fading away into the distance. Ask yourself do you really need to feel that afraid?
- Know what your triggers are and have some solutions for them. When anxiety hits, your thoughts are often all over the place and you may feel like you can’t get control of them. In this moment, write a list of your worries and then choose in whatever way to get rid of the list by aligning with ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’. When you feel a bit calmer, write another list of why you became anxious and think of solutions to overcome it. Practise this regularly and learn to be aware of your triggers. Separate anxiety from fear and fear from danger.
- Remind yourself this happens to so many people. We often think we are the only one in the room that is having anxious thoughts and emotions, but it’s likely that you are not alone and there will be several other people feeling exactly the same as you do. Remember our external expression does not necessarily match how we feel inside. Around eight million people have anxiety in the UK, you’re not alone, but you are probably a lot more resilient than you think.
- Ask for help. Have someone in mind that you can text or call that you know will help you with your worry or fear. It can be as little as texting them saying “Tell me three reasons why I can do this!” This will reassure you and help block intrusive negative thoughts and make you feel more confident. Choose the right person though! A negative person could drain you or knock your confidence further.
- Be positive. A positive self-fulfilling prophecy means if you believe you will do well, you are far more likely to do well and to be able to calmly face any challenges that do arise. Envisage yourself being successful and having feelings of confidence and happiness at the event. In the run up praise yourself for how well you are doing or have some powerful positive affirmations such as ‘This is going to go well because I have worked hard for it’. At the time of the event, take some deep breathes to get your mind clearly thinking and your body to slow down and remind yourself that it will be ok.
- Have a back-up plan. If whatever the challenge doesn’t work out as you would like, know that you always have choices. Not feeling locked into only one option helps relieve pressure and stress.Think about what else is out there for you that could be just as rewarding. With most things in life there is also usually an opportunity to try something a second time if it doesn’t work out the first time around.
- Nothing is ever perfect. Remember that this one event doesn’t define you and nothing is ever perfect. We are only human! You can always try again or try something different if things don’t go as well as you would have liked. Any life experience (good or bad) can be a learning springboard and how we deal with things not going our way can determine our success and how we grow and prosper.