THE BLOG

Overcoming Anxiety, Why Do We Get Nervous?

20/03/2014 12:16 GMT | Updated 20/05/2014 10:59 BST

People tend to believe that nerves and anxiety just happen to them. This, however, isn't remotely true! Nerves are created by people's beliefs and ways of thinking. It is never the feared situation itself that makes a person feel nervous, but it is the way in which the person thinks about it. In particular, people's perceptions of control are really important in determining whether or not they will create anxiety about a particular scenario.

As famous psychologist Bandura (1988) stated:

"People who believe they can exercise control over potential threats do not conjure up apprehensive cognitions and, hence, are not perturbed by them. But those who believe they cannot manage potential threats experience high levels of anxiety arousal. They tend to dwell on their coping deficiencies and view many aspects of their environment as fraught with danger."

So, when people feel skilful and in control in relation to a situation they don't feel particularly nervous. There are two ways in which people can feel in control of potential challenges. Firstly, they can have a high sense of primary control, believing that they can prevent a potential difficulty from occurring. A person could, for example, be certain that they have the skills to complete an important work assignment on time. As a result, they do not worry about the possibility of not getting the work done, since they are sure that this event will not occur! People can also have a strong sense of secondary control, believing that even when a potential threat is outside their primary control, they have the skills and resources to respond positively, cope and bounce back. A person could, for example, be confident that if they were to be diagnosed with cancer they would manage and still be able to enjoy life. So, they do not worry about the possibility of having cancer.

Having a relatively high sense of primary control is important generally, as it contributes to 'can do' attitude, where people believe that they have the resources needed to achieve their goals. In relation to overcoming anxiety and nerves, however, building a sense of secondary control is particularly significant. Although many outcomes are within people's primary control, there are events that are not always controllable. Although you can, for example, strongly influence your physical health, you cannot entirely prevent yourself from ever getting ill. People who frequently feel nervous always have a low sense of secondary control. They do not believe that they have the skills and resources to cope with certain situations. This means that they will often go out of their way to avoid feared scenarios, which only reinforces to them these situation are too nerve-wracking, increasing their sense of powerlessness and fear.

Is getting nervous natural?

Well yes, in a sense getting nervous is natural. It is a useful adaptation for humans to have a 'fight or flight' stress response in relation to potentially threatening situations, as this is something that has helped people to survive physical threats. These sort of threats were common hundreds or thousands of years ago, but, for most people nowadays, the things that they feel nervous and anxious about are not physically threatening. Instead, for many individuals, frequently getting nervous can be very limiting. In any case, the bottom line is that people create their nerves by their interpretation of a situation. When they feel skilful and resourceful they do not create anxiety. So whilst the ability to become nervous is, in a sense, natural, this doesn't mean that your nerves are just happening to you. You can do something about them! By building up your sense of control and coping skills you will be able to reduce your nerves.

How can nerves affect us at work?

Many people create nerves about work situations, such as meeting deadlines, giving presentations, or talking to their boss. Excessive nerves can really hold people back at work. They can impact upon work performance, mean that people do not apply for promotion, or simply mean that people get little pleasure from their job. Many work based nerves are linked to social anxiety, which I will go on to discuss briefly below.

How can nerves affect us socially?

Most people have some degree of social anxiety, which is a fear of being judged or worry about how other people view you. As a result, people can often create nerves about social situations. They may worry a lot about 'making a fool out of themselves' and may overanalyse how they have behaved in a particular social scenario. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, nerves about social situations can mean that people avoid social situations, completely shy away from dating, or even find it difficult to leave the house.

What can we do to overcome our nerves in general?

Two top tips for overcoming anxiety and nerves are as follows:

1. Build up your sense of control

Building a strong sense of control is important in reducing anxiety - in particular you want to build up your sense of secondary control (the belief that you have the skills to respond positively, cope and bounce back from difficulties). You want to develop resilience and realise that you do have the resources to deal with any situation. Two ways that will help you to do this are:

i. Start changing your thoughts whenever you think in a powerless way. Our language strongly influences our beliefs and emotions. By using positive, powerful language, you will create less stress, anticipate positive outcomes and feel more empowered. Pay attention to the words you use and change any unhelpful words for more helpful ones. For example, ''it's terrifying at the dentist, I'll be a wreck" could become "it's a bit unpleasant at the dentist, but I can cope with it".

ii. One of the best ways to feel more in control is to overcome challenges. So, set yourself a personal challenge that you are going to achieve over the next week or so. This should be something that will be a little bit difficult for you to achieve BUT is something that you can do, if you put in some effort. To ensure that you succeed, you want to think about what steps you are going to take to achieve your challenge. As you work towards your goal, you want to keep encouraging yourself and praising yourself for the effort you are putting in. Once you have completed your challenge you want to recognise your achievement and say 'well done' to yourself for your hard work.

2. Stop avoiding feared situations

When you want to avoid a particular feared situation, remind yourself that you do not need to do so. Tell yourself that you are capable of tolerating any feelings of discomfort and that you do have the skills and resources to cope with the challenge. Make sure that you praise yourself for tolerating the experience. If you start to feel nervous and want to get away, slow your breathing down and tell yourself you can cope with the situation. E.g. 'this is OK, I can tolerate this situation'. You want to keep reminding yourself that the anxiety you are experiencing isn't being caused by the situation itself but by your unhelpful thinking in relation to it. Tell yourself: 'this fear is coming from inside me, not outside of me and I can tolerate it.' Every time you tolerate a feared situation you are building up your skills, so that the next time it will be easier.

What more practical tips can you offer specifically for work, socially or big events such as playing sports?

Something which is really helpful in reducing nerves is positive visualisation. What you imagine or rehearse happening in your mind is incredibly powerful. If you imagine things going wrong and think about failing, then you will be creating nerves and making yourself feel hopeless. So, you want to always imagine what you WANT to happen, and NOT what you fear might go wrong.

Use your imagination to positively rehearse situations/experiences before they happen, so that they happen and you experience them, just the way you wanted them to be. This works really well for social events and performance-related situations (going for an interview, giving a speech, overcoming a sexual inhibition, asking someone on a date etc.). Choose a couple of events or scenarios that you have either been worrying and thinking negatively about, or that you feel you would like to work on. Find a quiet place (e.g. just as you go to bed, or when you are on a train to work, or when you are in the bath) and spend five or ten minutes on each scenario really visualising/rehearsing what you want to happen. The more you practise/rehearse visualising, the easier it becomes..

Can nerves be harnessed for good?

A small degree of stress arousal can sometimes be positive and motivating. An example of this is that many athletes will produce personal best performances during competitions due to the pressure associated with competing and the resulting ability to become 'psyched up'. So experiencing mild nerves before something like a sporting event or a performance isn't a bad thing, as it can give you a slight edge. But you want to maintain a sense of control and maintain perspective, so that you don't create excessive anxiety, as this can be limiting and disempowering.

How can you control your nerves / harness them?

Following all the tips I have given so far will really help a person to control their nerves. The way in which you interpret a small degree of stress arousal is also important. People who harness their nerves tend to feel relatively powerful and skilful. They view mild nerves in a positive way and, consequently do not go on to create unhelpful levels of anxiety. Let's take the example of someone about to run in a race. Someone who harnesses their nerves in a positive way will see their slightly increased heart rate and arousal as a positive thing. They might think something along the lines of "Yeah, I'm going to own this race. I'm really ready to get going!" This person will be positively psyched up and excited about running. Another person might instead think "Oh god, my heart is racing. I'm feeling so nervous. I'm not sure that I can do this..." As a result, they will create more and more anxiety and, in all probability, will then run the race less well than they otherwise would have done.

How can you overcome nerves when it comes to dating?

Again, following all my tips so far will be very helpful in relation to dating nerves. Another tip which can help you to feel more confident in relation to dating is to build your self-esteem. One simple tip for how to do this is to make sure that you are recognising your positive achievements and experiences. To help do this, make a list of of ten of your recent positive experiences and achievements on your mobile phone. These don't need to be big or life-changing! They could simply be things like spending time with friends or cooking dinner. What you then want you to do is to look through your list as often as possible! When you wake up in the morning, during breaks at work, before going to bed or whenever you have a spare minute... At the very least, you want to look at it 5 times every day and remind yourself of the positive experiences. If your positive thing was something that you achieved, like cooking dinner, you want to you remind yourself that YOU achieved it. Once you have something else to add to your list, i.e. when you have another positive experience, add it as number 1. Then everything else moves down the list one place, with the old number 10 disappearing off the list altogether. It doesn't matter whether you add three new positives each day or one per week, just add one when you have one.