There's something to those shaky hands and stomach butterflies after all

By Moira Lawler
September 15, 2014
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Picture this: You're in the elevator on your way up to your last-round interview-you can feel your hands shaking, and your mind immediately turns to the problem: What if they don't like me? What if I forget all of my prep? Then, you freak out even more.

Pause. "The key is not to deny the thought or feeling," says Andrea Stephenson, a clinical psychologist based in the Cleveland, Ohio area. "Never think, 'That's a bad thought, I shouldn't have it.'" Rather, acknowledge the feeling and frame it as a positive sign that the moment in front of you has value.

"Anxiety can be a sign that we're facing a threat, but it can also be a sign of something that's important that's in front of us," says Paul Yellin, M.D. and director at The Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education in New York City. So, simply noticing the too-anxious-to-eat feeling signals there's a pivotal moment within your reach. "If you didn't have any emotion in that situation, it would have no meaning for you," adds clinical psychologist Steve Orma. Here, how to embrace the feelings of being scared and make them work for you-not against you-in these four major moments.

A Job interview

In the moments leading up to the meeting, position the conversation in your mind as a positive experience. This tactic, known as framing, works best if you imagine something that you can really believe and buy into, Orma says. So, instead of thinking, "I'm going to be the best candidate they've ever seen," think "I've done interviews before and I've done well, and even if I haven't done so well, they've really liked me," he says. When you're in the hot seat on the receiving end of the "where do you see yourself in five years?" question, steer your focus elsewhere. "Put your focus on the interviewer, focus on the questions they're asking you, and outwardly on the environment. Let your body be nervous," he says, adding that the interviewer likely won't notice any signs of your nerves.

A First Date

Oftentimes, our reaction to a nervous situation, like walking down a creepy dark alley, mirrors our reaction to an excited one, like a first date. "Take that nervousness and frame it as excitement," Orma says. "When you're nervous or anxious, your body has physical changes and you produce adrenaline." Use this extra dose of energy and razor-sharp focus to be more in tune with the experience, he says. Your heightened awareness could help you pick up on the key traits you're looking for in a partner.

A Big Presentation

You know your stuff, and you're ready to nail it. Now, if only you could make your hands stop shaking. "The reason the hands shake and you get a nervous stomach is because your adrenaline gets released, so it gives you energy so you're prepared to fight off the threat," Orma says. To prepare for the situation, steal a tactic from athletes called exposure, Stephenson suggests. In the same way that athletes visit the stadium before game day, walk through how the presentation will go in your mind. Picture the room that you'll be in, think about where you'll stand, and visualize how the presentation will go, Stephenson says. And whenever your boss presents these speaking opportunities, say yes. After you pull off several successful presentations, you'll become desensitized to the nervous feelings, Yellin says.