Do not land a punch.
You can turn this around.
What is the stress response?
Positive aspects to the physiological stress response
- They increase access to glucose supply – food for the brain as well as the body.
- They initiate the pumping of extra oxygen to the brain. Though your breaths might be short, the air passages to the lungs expand so plenty of oxygen can get into your bloodstream.
- Your sight and other senses become sharper – you might notice your pupils dilate.
- There is even evidence that these stress hormones in the short term can improve memory.
- And noradrenaline can even help stop your mind wandering.
- In short, it sharpens you up.
Your automatic response to stress isn’t all bad. Embrace it.
What are these tricks you speak of? I hear you say.
Trick 1: Smile
- Our emotions influence how our physiology works (as we’ve seen)
- But our body also feeds back messages to the brain to affect our emotions.
There’s one really useful trick you can use to kick-start a positive emotion, and that’s smiling. You might assume you smile because you’re happy but there is evidence that people can feel happier because they’re smiling. You can short-circuit the negative feeling.
One great study of this, that’s been replicated many times, is the pencil test:
- The study got people to look at some neutral images – pictures that were neither happy or sad – while holding a pencil in their mouth. Some held it so their lips didn’t touch the pencil. This gave them a simulated smile – they weren’t really trying to smile, but their muscles were forced in to a smile formation. The other participants held the pencil tightly with their lips. This looked a lot like scowling.
- The people doing the ‘fake smile’ rated the pictures more positively. They interpreted what they saw as happier, just by pretending to be happy themselves. Their physiology affected their emotions. You can exploit this too. Trick your body into relaxing and feeling happy by smiling as you approach your pitch.
Trick 2: Anxiety Reappraisal
This hinges on the fact that at a physiological level, excitement and short term anxiety are the same: adrenaline is involved in both.
It's possible to use this overlap to trick yourself because it’s easier to go from one state of high arousal to another. It's easier to move yourself from a state of anxiety to excitement, than from anxiety to calm. So rather than trying to get rid of your feeling of stress, use it.
- Psychological researchers at Harvard Business School have been looking at how to do this and they advocate:
- Anxiety reappraisal. Reframing your jitters as ‘excitement’ rather than ‘nerves’. This improves performance.
- In the Harvard study students were asked to give a presentation and prepare by saying either "I’m excited" or "I’m anxious". A third group weren’t instructed to do anything. The students who told themselves "I'm excited" performed best.
- Here you’re taking advantage of the fact that as well as the ‘quick and dirty’ stress response, there’s an indirect response mechanism that can mediate your reaction by re-routing through the ‘thinking’ bit of your brain – the cortex.
- Those physiological responses to stress aren’t all bad. Some might be actively helping you give a sparkling pitch.
- You can take advantage of the feedback loop between your emotions and your physiology. Change your physical state and trick you brain into thinking that is how you are feeling! SMILE!
- There’s scientific evidence that you can trick the old part of your brain into performing better by thinking: getting the new part of your brain to say "I’m excited" rather than "I’m a nervous wreck".