Sweaty palms, racing heart, nervous butterflies — if you experience these feelings in anticipation of a stressful task, you’re not alone. As a professional speaker and entrepreneur, I’ve been right there with you ahead of a keynote address or major presentation.
Whether you’re getting ready to enter a new career, go back to school, speak in front of a large group, or take an important exam, it’s normal to feel some anxiety about the challenge ahead. The nervous energy you feel can seem absolutely overwhelming — even if it doesn’t always correspond to the size or scope of the task. I sometimes get just as many butterflies before a virtual corporate keynote as I did when I appeared on “Shark Tank” and knew that millions of people would see my presentation!
Those nerves become a problem, though, when they hinder your ability to perform the task at hand. That’s the difference between “eustress,” or good stress, and “distress,” or bad stress. Eustress helps build resilience and drives you to improve; distress can be harmful to your health and can make you feel powerless instead of powerful.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to curb your stress response so you can stay on course and complete your mission. Even just reading this article to remind yourself that you’re not alone in feeling stressed may help! But let’s not stop there. You’ll be better prepared to take on your next stressful challenge if you implement these three strategies:
1. Split large tasks into smaller ones.
If you’re staring down a deadline for a project that feels impossible to complete, your first step should be to dive deeper and break the process down into manageable pieces. This works well for tasks like studying for a test, which you could break into smaller to-dos like rereading one chapter of your textbook every night or completing one section of a study guide per week. You may benefit from setting up SMART goals, which are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound.
You can take this approach further and use it to break down any material you need to learn for school, work, or a project by creating mnemonic devices to memorize things — think “Roy G. Biv” for remembering the colors of the rainbow.
“Mnemonic devices make it easier to encode information into the brain, helping it ‘stick’ longer and resulting in better recall in the future,” says Mark Heslin, a member of USMLE-Rx’s Rx Coach team. “In essence, this approach ‘chunks’ large amounts of information into digestible bits to serve as hyperlinks in your brain — clicking one opens up a ton of information.”
2. Rehearse, practice, or visualize the task.
Practicing is a great way to reduce stress around any performance-related task. If I have enough practice runs under my belt before it’s time to deliver a speech, for example, I find I’m much more confident about my ability to succeed. If the situation stressing you out is more abstract, like having a good first day of work at a new job, try visualizing how you’d like that first day to go.
When practicing or visualizing, focus on the details. Give yourself the same time limits when taking a practice test that you’d face during the real test, and remove distractions like music or television that won’t be present during the actual event. Practice a speech several times in advance — even dozens of times, like some speakers do — while timing yourself and making an effort to look out at an imagined crowd. Picture yourself in your new office, interacting with your new co-workers and managers, asking thoughtful questions, and having a successful experience.
3. Take care of your mental and physical health.
While you’re working on your SMART goals, rehearsals, and visualizations, it’s critical not to neglect your health. I know that choosing healthier meals and snacks helps me stay physically and mentally energized through even my busiest days. From there, I look to exercise and relaxation for their health benefits. Just walking for 30 minutes a day can improve your mood, and more strenuous exercise produces endorphins and hormones that help you feel better. Meanwhile, relaxing activities like meditation, listening to calming music, reading, and breathing exercises can lower your stress levels.
The peak form of relaxation would be sleep, which can play a major role in reducing stress. Getting between seven and nine hours of rest per night will help keep you healthy, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Naps can help, too, if you’re low on sleep and can squeeze in a half-hour snooze. If you find that these strategies aren’t helping you reduce your stress as much as you’d like, reach out to your doctor or a mental health professional, both of whom can provide you with additional resources or treatment options.
As you approach your next exam, job, speech, or another stressful task, think back to this article. With these strategies at your disposal, you’ll be fully prepared to complete the task successfully. And every time you overcome your stress to do a great job, your confidence in yourself will grow.