All of us experience some form of nervousness at some point in our lives. So, if you stumble upon this article because you are currently nervous about something, know that you are not alone.
Yet, what actually is nervousness? Is it the same condition as anxiety? Or fear? Or Shyness? Why do I experience physical symptoms like sweaty palms and racing heart rate when I’m nervous? And the most important of all: how to be less nervous?
As you can see, there are probably a lot of things you haven’t known about nervousness, and as the old saying goes: “If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.”
Here, let us learn together about the ins and outs of nervousness, so we can tackle it properly.
What Actually Is Nervousness?
First, nervousness is not only caused by bad or negative experiences. Good experiences like a first date or even watching your favorite team in a final can bring nervousness. On the other hand, negative experiences like a funeral can also make us nervous.
Technically, nervousness is simply our body’s natural stress response, that is, physiological changes in our body when we face a perceived threat, something that our brain thinks as dangerous.
So, nervousness is closely tied to fear. When we fear something, this will send a signal to our brain that there’s a potential threat, and so our body will respond by releasing hormones (mainly cortisol) among other physiological changes. This is why nervousness can cause various physical symptoms, such as
- Adrenaline rush
- Faster heart rate
- Redirecting blood from your limbs to major, central organs
Nervousness is one of the major aspects of what’s known as the fight-or-flight response system, our natural reaction to fear. So, the first thing we should keep in mind is that being nervous is normal and perfectly okay.
It is, however, not okay when you can’t control your nervousness and it becomes a major hindrance in achieving success and your other life goals.
Nervousness VS Anxiety Disorder
As we have established, nervousness is simply our body’s natural response to a fearful (or stressful event).
With that being said, nervousness is temporary and should totally subside when the feared situation is resolved, or when you control the nervous sensation in one way or another (as we will discuss later on).
Speaking of control, natural nervousness should be mostly controllable. That is, it shouldn’t take much effort to control your nervousness to a manageable level without affecting your day-to-day performance.
It is, however, very important to differentiate between common’ nervousness and the more serious anxiety disorder. (you can read more about anxiety disorder here: Do I Have Social Anxiety Or Am I Just Shy? and What To Do About Social Anxiety?).
The main difference between the two is the intensity of the nervousness. In people with anxiety disorder, the feeling of nervousness can be very severe, last a very long time even days before and after the actual stressors, and can be very difficult to control.
One of the most common signs that your nervousness is caused by anxiety disorder is when you know that the nervousness is irrational and exaggerating according to the situation. For example, you are really nervous for days before a simple public speech, you know you shouldn’t be this nervous, but can’t control it nevertheless.
Also, while nervousness is one of the most common symptoms of anxiety disorder, anxiety disorder is not solely about nervousness and can show various other symptoms such as
- Mild to severe headaches
- Odd, mainly tingling sensations in various parts in your body
- Numbness and irritability
- Uncontrollable trembling
- Extreme fatigue but paired with insomnia
- Stomach ache and diarrhea
- Chest tightness
- Trouble concentrating
You might want to refer to our previous guide on anxiety disorder here (Do I Have Social Anxiety Or Am I Just Shy? and What To Do About Social Anxiety?).). If you suspect yourself (or someone close to you) of suffering from an anxiety disorder, know that it is very treatable as long as you get help from a mental health professional. The sooner, the better.
Why Do We Get Nervous?
As we have discussed, feeling nervous is 100% normal, a natural, hard-wired reaction in our brains as a part of our fight-or-flight response system.
Thus, understanding the concept of this fight-or-flight response system is essential in understanding why we get nervous in the first place.
Nervousness—as a stress response—, is originally intended to provide our body with a burst of energy (by increasing our heart rate, redistributing your blood to major organs, and providing an adrenaline rush, among other physiological changes). This extra energy is originally designed so we can either fight off the danger or run away from the threat as soon as possible.
Early on in human history, this world is filled with various physical threats—from animal predators to other natural dangers—. Also, the threats our ancestors faced back then tend to be short-lived and very physical, it’s there and very physical, and the human can either run, win the fight, or get killed almost instantly.
What about today?
Today, our day-to-day dangers and threats tend to be much safer’ (that is, it’s very rare that the threat is actually life-threatening), less physical, but on the other hand, tend to be more long-term and sustained.
For example, when our boss demands our performance in the office, most likely we won’t be killed in this situation, and it’s not physically threatening. However, this trigger can last for days, weeks, and even months.
Thus, our primal, natural response is no longer the perfect fit for today’s situations. In today’s world where most of our jobs are mental and intellectual by nature—as opposed to physical—so, a burst of mental clarity might benefit us more than the burst of physical performance we get.
To summarize, our nervousness is created from the mismatch between this evolved’ modern stressor and our body’s primitive’ response’.
The thing is, nervousness today as a stress response can cause more harm than good. Our body is wired to perform a natural relaxation response after the perceived threat is gone. The thing is, since our modern threat tends to be long-lasting, the relaxation period is never actually reached, and so the nervousness is still there. In severe cases, this condition can lead to chronic, sustained nervousness and stress.
Another important thing to note is that since today’s non-physical threats’ are rather abstract, the nervousness is based on perceived rather than an actual threat, so it’s not objective. This is why two different people can face a similar stressor—stress trigger— and can react in different ways.
Some people, for example, may perceive going to the dentist as a threat (and so may suffer from dental anxiety), but as we all know, there are also many people that are not afraid of the dentist.
Reminding ourselves that the particular threat is not as immediate and life-threatening as the brain originally perceived is one of the most effective ways of managing nervousness, telling our brain to reduce our fight-orflight response and relax. This, however, is often easier said than done and may require practice before we can do it properly (as we will discuss below).
Also, due to this mismatch’, we often experience a higher level of nervousness and stress in a threatening’ social situations (the first date, job interviews, etc.) than actual physical threat like, for example, crossing a busy street or driving a car. We may also feel nervous when we are reminded of past traumatic experiences, even when we aren’t actually in life-threatening danger.
External Factors and Common Triggers for Anxiet
Now that we’ve discussed how nervousness is—to put it simply—a mismatch between our primal fight-orflight response system and the modern day-to-day situations, here are the common external triggers that can cause nervousness:
- Work-related and school-related stress
- Relationship-related stress like dating, meeting the in-laws, marriage, and even friendship-related issues
- Financial issues, a very common cause these day
- Triggers related to past trauma (i.e. abandoned during childhood, death of a loved one, etc.
- Excessive worry about our health issues (hypochondria)
- A side effect of medications, or illicit drugs usage
- Actual symptoms of medical illness (heart attack, heatstroke, etc. )
- Lack of oxygen and increase of carbon dioxide in your blood due to various causes and conditions
This is obviously not an all-inclusive list, and as you can see, nervousness might also be a symptom of actual health conditions or as a side effect of medications. You may need the help of a medical professional to determine whether your symptoms come from nervousness or other causes
Effective Nerve-Busting Tips and Strategies
Since our nervousness is closely related to stress build-up (as we have discussed above), it is very important to figure out working strategies that can help your body and brain to relax and bring it back to its normal state. This is also important that our nervousness doesn’t hinder your social and professional performance.
Below, we will discuss some of the effective nerve-busting strategies:
Think Positive Thoughts
A bit cliche, but it is still one of the most effective ways to manage nervousness, stress, and negative feelings in general.
When you start feeling nervous, think of the best potential outcome of the current situation. For example, if you are going to deliver a speech, picture an applauding audience. If you are nervous about going to a first date, picture a successful date (or probably a kiss). You can also try to remember positive past experiences to overcome the nervousness.
So, the idea here is fairly simple, visualize a positive picture and don’t focus on negativity. This helps our natural stress response to relax by giving our brain the right perspective, and produce courage.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
PMR (Progressive Muscle Relaxation) is a relaxation technique to manage anxiety/nervousness and/or stress.
With this technique, we tense a group of muscles as we breathe in, and then we completely relax these muscles as we breathe out. Then, we switch between different muscle groups.
This technique is effective because when we are physically relaxed, we can’t feel nervous (try it!). Practicing the PMR technique regularly can allow us to effectively use this technique anytime to relieve nerve and stress.
Take Care of Yourself
Our physical health will significantly affect our mental condition, and when faced with stressful or fearful situations, we tend to forget our physical needs like a healthy diet and enough sleep.
It’s quite often that we avoid a big meal before an event that can trigger our nervousness. Just eat a nutritionrich snack like fruits to give your brain the required energy. Also, make sure you get enough sleep before the D-day.
Practice and Be Prepared
When facing a nerve-wracking social situation or event, one of the most effective approaches is to make sure you are prepared for the activity. Rehearse as much as possible: in front of a mirror, with a friend, with a family member, and so on.
We all know that we can’t ever be 100% prepared for something, so why is this approach effective in handling nervousness? It’s simply because practicing something can amplify the connections in our brain, making us more familiar with the activity—and obviously allow us to be more skilled at doing it—. As a result, we can be more confident in performing the interaction or activity.
When we slow down our breathing activity and focus, you are intaking more oxygen into your body, effectively releasing physical tension and relaxing your body. On the other hand, breathing exercises can bypass’ your fight-or-flight response, making you feel more relaxed
Nowadays, there are various apps that can provide step-by-step guidance on breathing exercises.
Nerves can be very serious conditions and can be very challenging to manage. The main thing to practice is to remember that nervousness is essentially your body’s natural fight-or-flight response, and by training your mind that the perceived threat is not actually life-threatening, we can achieve relaxation response.
If, however, you’ve tried out all the methods we have shared above but you’re still finding it very difficult to deal with certain social situations, you might need to get professional help, so call the nearest doctor or mental health practitioners as soon as possible.