A couple of days ago, my friend Sarah messaged me for some advice. In her new role, she has been asked to present to the board. Her exact words were:

“I’m really hoping I get hit by a bus or something so I don’t have to go”.

And she wasn’t joking.

Sarah isn’t alone in her fear, and a lot of people would genuinely rather have a horrible accident or be stuck down by a mystery illness than stand up and speak in front of people.

First thing’s first: it’s normal to get nervous. I get nervous, and my whole professional life has involved standing up and speaking in front of people. So, if it’s good enough for me…

My approach isn’t to try and eradicate nerves. Sure, there are things we can do to increase our confidence and reduce our fear, but ambitious people are, by their very nature, going to be challenging themselves and trying new things which, at times, will make them feel nervous.

Rather than pretending it isn’t going to happen, it helps to examine what is happening, and why. Once we begin to understand our fear response, we can start to take steps to reduce its impact on us.

What happens when we’re nervous? Well, we all know that one: clammy palms, racing heart, butterflies in our tummy. Our mouth goes dry, we start sweating, and sometimes actually tremble. And then, just when we need to be able to think clearly…our mind goes blank.

Why do these seemingly unhelpful things happen right when we want to be on our game?

It’s our brain’s brilliant response. We tell it we’re scared, and it says, “okay, I’ll protect you. I’ll trigger the fight/flight response so that you can either destroy or run away from the thing you’re scared of”.

This seems an over-reaction given we’re just standing in a room full of people. But the fear response is so ingrained in us, it’s our go-to reaction whenever we feel vulnerable.

The first thing that happens is we start to breathe more quickly. Again, it’s our brain’s very clever way of getting more oxygen in to the body. Then our heart is instructed to pump more quickly, and the oxygenated blood is sent to the priority areas: ie. the muscles, ready to fight or flee.

The brain triggers this chain of events via one starting point: breath.

We UNCONSCIOUSLY adapt our breathing to the situation.

But breathing is an amazing thing: our lungs are organs we can control CONSCIOUSLY, too. And, if they’re the beginning of this fear response, and trigger all sorts of effects in our body, it makes sense that – if we can CONSCIOUSLY change what they’re doing, we should take advantage of that!

This is why you hear people like me banging on about the importance of breath. Through taking control of your breathing, and consciously slowing down your breath rate, taking deeper breaths right down into your body, you are sending a message back to your brain: thank you for your concern, but stand down! There’s no sabre-toothed tiger. I don’t need to fight or run, so I don’t need extra oxygen. This takes your brain by the hand and walks it back over the line into a calmer, resting state. This is the state we need to be in for rational thought, allowing us to be present in the moment we are in right now and thinking about the people we are there to serve: our audience.

If nerves are getting the better of you and you’d like to learn some strategies to help you harness the power of your own breath, get in touch.