Your nerves can be fuel for performance—but only if you know how to use them.
The feeling comes on when you’re standing at the starting line before a race, about to go into a job interview, or getting ready for a first date. It can seem like a balloon expanding, or a washing machine stuck on spin cycle, churning whatever you had for breakfast into something you wish you could forget.
Your nerves are your body’s way of heightening the stakes. It’s a state of arousal that can beget anxiety, or it can be used for good.
“Everyone gets those symptoms,” says Derek Marr, Ph.D., a sports psychologist from Southern Methodist University. “The big differentiating factor is how they perceive that feeling.”
When the butterflies begin to flutter—regardless of whether you’re anticipating a barbed-wire crawl or a PowerPoint presentation—you have to remember: Your experience exists on a long spectrum of normal emotions. When San José State University researchers interviewed adventure-sport athletes, they found everything from total calm to just the opposite: Some high-performers had extreme experiences, like nausea and horror.
What high-achievers have in common, Marr says, is that they know how to channel their emotions into performance. If they experience stress, they use it as motivation. Low performers, on the other hand, internalize symptoms of anxiety as a sign of impending failure. They fear the butterflies, rather than embrace them.
By learning how to excel under pressure, you’ll unlock your potential. The three-step process here will show you how to do just that.
Step 1: Breathe Methodically
It sounds too simple to be meaningful, but controlled breathing might be the most important thing you can do to combat nerves. Pulling air slowly and methodically into your lungs helps control your body’s physical stress response, which is intrinsically connected to your psyche, according to research from Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura, Ph.D. That means if you can keep your body calm, your brain will follow.
“Breathing is number one,” says Brian Zuleger, Ph.D., a sports psychologist from Adams State University. “It helps you regulate your heart rate and conserve your energy so you don’t get all antsy and jittery.”
Try the routine that Zuleger recommends for his NCAA cross-country runners: Breathe in slowly through your nose for seven seconds, hold it for two counts, and then exhale through your mouth on a seven-second count. Repeat until you feel like you’re in control.
Step 2: Talk to Yourself
There’s no conversation more important than the one you have with yourself, Marr says. In describing the power of self-talk, he references a quote from Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”
But it’s not as simple as “thinking happy thoughts.” In most cases, nerves in your stomach are trying to tell your brain that there’s real danger ahead. So find the part of you that’s most equipped for the battle. If you’re at the starting line of a Spartan Race, for instance, channel your inner warrior instead of your inner Buddha.
“If you need to, create a personification of internal dialogue,” Marr says. “You can be the strongest devil on your shoulder.”
The important thing with positive self-talk is to figure out what works for you. You have to find what psychologists call optimal arousal—the intensity level that unlocks your best self. It doesn’t matter whether you get there by putting DMX or Mozart into your headphones; just make sure it feels right to you. And keep filling your headspace with motivation until you’re feeling sorry for everyone else who showed up to race against you.
Step 3: Focus on the Process
The nerves you feel before a competition or office presentation have one thing in common: They’re both tied to the uncontrollable variables that lie ahead. Will you cramp up? Say something stupid? Embarrass yourself?
The foolish move is to obsess over the outcome. Result-focused thinking can make you feel powerless, so instead, think about the hurdles you’re about to face, and the specific things you need to do to overcome them. If it’s a presentation, do you anticipate a tricky question from your boss? Decide how you’ll reply. If it’s a race, are you nervous about falling during the Tyrolean Traverse? It’s fine if you do, but in the meantime, imagine what your hands and legs need to do to carry you across.
“Focus on the process of what it’s going to take to complete the task,” Zulegar says. The outcome is inconsequential—just an inevitable conclusion to the work you put in.
This type of work-based objective is called a process goal. By grounding you in the present, it helps you handle the immediate task and increases your odds of success.
So remember: Take some deep breaths, talk yourself up, and eliminate doubt by focusing on exactly what you’re going to. And then thank those butterflies for showing up. They’re only there to help.