It turns out that how you approach stress might be more damaging than the stressor itself. Let’s say you have just been asked to deliver a major presentation in front of a hesitant or reluctant audience. You might immediately spiral into a stress response that has you imaging amazingly awful outcomes with horrific long-term consequences for you, your career, and your company. Your body instantly initiates a cortisol cascade that invokes the flight or flight response. Alternatively, you might view this speech as a learning opportunity where you have a chance to share something you are excited about. In this latter situation, you actually feel a mix of excitement and mild trepidation. The key distinction here has to do with what psychologists define as your stress mind set.
Stress is most damaging and debilitating when we feel helpless and hopeless. In her new book The Upside of Stress, Kelly McGonigal suggests the following three approaches to a positive stress mindset:
(1) Reframe your body’s stress response as helpful, not harmful. Evolution designed our stress response to help us cope.
(2) Appreciate that you are not alone — others experience the same stresses your do. With regard to presentation anxiety, 85% of people report feeling nervous prior to their public speaking.
(3) Know that you have the tools or can learn the tools to handle most stressors that you are confronted with. In the case of nervousness around presenting, you can read my book Speaking Up without freaking Out to learn academically verified techniques to manage both the sources and symptoms of your speaking anxiety.
Two specific speaking anxiety management techniques that help establish a positive stress mindset come from work done on mindfulness.
First, when you experience negative physical arousal associated with presenting (e.g., your heart rate increases, you begin to sweat), remind yourself that these reactions are normal and typical. This is called relabeling. These sensations do not show anything beyond your body’s normal response to something that is displeasing. In other words, avoid giving these natural responses special significance. You can go a step further and greet or accept these natural responses by saying to yourself: “Here are those anxiety feelings again. Of course, I should be feeling them. I am about to give a presentation.”
Second, when you are feeling negative or nervous about speaking, say to yourself, “This is me feeling nervous about speaking.” This kind of assertion takes you out of the nervousness and instead allows you to observe yourself being nervous. To be outside yourself affords you the opportunity to calm down. You can gain a sense of control. Further, by thinking of a positive emotion—such as calmness or happiness—once you have distanced yourself from your negative feelings, you will more quickly reduce your feelings of anxiety.
Developing and maintaining a positive stress mindset can comfort you as you confront stressors in your life. Nowhere is this more useful than when speaking in public.