The prospect of a job interview brings up mixed feelings for most people. On the one hand, getting an interview means you are one step closer to that next opportunity. On the other hand, you can't help feeling anxious about a stressful social situation that may not even accurately predict your future job performance. Whether you like them or not, job interviews will almost certainly be a part of your job search. Because they are inevitable, it is important to learn how to control your anxiety and fears before an interview.
You may be surprised to learn that feeling anxious to before a job interview can enhance your performance. When you’re experiencing manageable stress and anxiety levels, you will generally feel more alert and motivated. That’s pretty much exactly how you want to feel at a job interview. The real problem is when anxiety turns into panic. We’ve all experienced situations where we’ve been so anxious we couldn’t think clearly. Intense fear, panic attacks, and anxiety attacks also create some pretty unpleasant physical symptoms. It’s embarrassing to walk into an interview with clammy palms, flushed cheeks, or shallow breathing, not to mention anxiety symptoms like a rapid heart rate and negative thoughts.
Here’s the good news. There are a variety of techniques that can help you master your relationship with anxiety and stress and ace your next interview. They fall into three broad categories: 1) doing your homework, 2) changing your thinking, and 3) controlling your physical responses. I’ll break them down below.
Do Your Homework
People experience more anxiety when they feel like a situation is out of their control. Job interviews can certainly feel this way. There are usually high stakes at play, and interviews force you to interact with strangers in an unfamiliar environment. If you have social anxiety disorder, this type of situation can trigger a stress response—even a fight-or-flight response. But even if you don't have a social phobia, job interviews are not a staple of our day-to-day life, so they may feel unnatural and provoke anxious thoughts and responses.
Sadly, it is unlikely that any of us will ever get to choose our interview location (or interviewer!). However, preparing for an interview can help you regain a sense of control and reduce some of your stress and anxiety.
Practice Your Answers to Common Questions
While every interview is different, there are some questions you will almost always get asked. Some questions, such as “Tell me about how you handled a mistake at work,” can be particularly tricky. If you practice your answers to these questions, you’ll be less likely to get caught off guard.
The STAR method is a particularly powerful way of answering behavioral interview questions. STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result. The idea is to focus on a specific situation you encountered, what you did about it, and the positive result. If you’ve never used the STAR method before, it helps to actually write out potential answers. This gives you a chance to reread and edit them.
In addition to standard situation-based interview questions, interviewers will probably ask you some industry-specific questions. For example, when I was applying for therapy jobs, I would almost always be asked to analyze a clinical case study. If you are changing industries, you can use your network to get the inside scoop on what these questions are. Invest some time in preparing answers to these questions as well.
Research the Company
Spend some time researching the company that’s invited you for an interview. This will help you answer the inevitable, “Why do you want to work here?” question. It may also help you make some predictions about what your interview will be like. More information means less anxiety and anxious thoughts.
One of the best ways to practice for an interview is to role play with a friend. The more you can get live practice before a stressful situation, the more predictable it will feel. And predictable situations are always less anxiety-provoking than completely novel ones.
There are a few ways to maximize the value of a role-play exercise. First, pick a friend who won’t be afraid to give you honest feedback about your responses. More importantly, revise the way you answer interview questions based on that feedback!
Second, make the role-play situation mimic your future interview situation as closely as possible. If you know you’ll be interviewed in a restaurant or café, role play in a restaurant or café. If you’ll be interviewed in a meeting room, check out a meeting room at the library. When I was interviewing for psychology internships, I knew my interviewers were not supposed to smile or give feedback. So, I asked my friends to behave exactly this way when we role played interview questions. Those role-plays were exactly as awkward as you’re imagining them to be. However, practicing how I would behave in such a nerve-wracking situation helped me stay collected during the actual interview process.
It can also be a good idea to play out worst-case scenarios, so you have a response ready and won't be caught off guard by a difficult question. Be prepared for questions that bring you out of your comfort zone.
Adopting a process-oriented mindset is difficult, but it’s also potentially the best way to control your anxiety and fear surrounding job interviews. Process orientation is psychology-speak for “being more focused on how you’re doing something rather than the result.” A process-oriented interviewee walks into the interview situation focused on learning about the company and improving their interview style. Sure, they want a job offer, but that is not where they direct their primary energy.
Right now, you are probably screaming something like, “But isn’t the whole point of an interview to get a job!?!?!” Of course, interviews are ultimately about getting jobs. However, most people who go through a job search will have to cope with a lot of rejections. I learned this the hard way when I was applying for my first professional jobs after graduate school. After submitting over 50 job applications, I got a measly four interviews…and bombed two of them.
If I had obsessed about every job I didn’t get during that job search, I would have stopped applying entirely. Instead, I tried to use every application and interview as a learning experience. Pro tip: don’t ever say you’re interested in a different position than the one for which you’re being interviewed.
I hope you’ll have to eat less humble pie during your job search than I did. However, if you are in a similar situation, learning how to learn from your mistakes is a pretty valuable skill. Focusing on ways to improve (rather than how you’ve failed) will help you power through the lows of job searching—and reduce anxiety for the next interview that rolls around. That may not start paying the bills immediately, but I promise it will pay off in the long run.
Manage The Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
Even if you’ve done your homework and adopted a process-oriented mindset, you’ll probably feel nervous the day of your interview. Physical anxiety symptoms (sweating, shaking, a racing heartbeat, a fight-or-flight response) can be really distracting and embarrassing in an interview situation. Thankfully, there are some simple techniques that can help you look poised and confident during the interview process—so even if your mind is plagued by negative thoughts and worries, your interviewer won't know. The best part is you can do many of relaxation techniques without anyone else even noticing.
Manage Your Breathing
Paced breathing is a relatively simple breathing exercise that can very quickly bring down your anxiety level and reduce your stress response. The key is to exhale longer than you inhale. If you’ve never done paced breathing before, this video demonstrates the technique. Most people will experience anxiety relief after practicing paced breathing for just a few minutes. However, paced breathing works best if you’ve practiced before you’re in a situation where you’re really nervous. My suggestion is to schedule about two minutes a day to practice. When it's part of your day-to-day life, this skill becomes second nature when you really need it.
Relax Your Muscles
Another way to quickly calm yourself and reduce your anxiety levels is progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). The idea here is to tense up and then relax each of your major muscle groups, working your way up your body. This is another skill that gets more effective the more you practice. Here’s a video that walks you through a very brief PMR exercise. When you get skilled at PMR, it’s pretty easy to practice in public without anyone noticing. I sometimes tense and relax my toes and shoulders before as a way to reduce anxiety before getting into a stressful situation.
Do a Brief Spurt of Physical Activity
Intense physical activity can also help you calm down quickly and improve your mental health overall. Now, this does not mean I am suggesting doing jumping jacks in the lobby before your interview. That’s probably *not* what you want your interviewer to remember about you. However, a brisk walk the morning before an interview can bring your anxiety down to manageable levels and relax your mind. This should go without saying, but please consult your doctor to make sure you’re doing safe levels of exercise.
Use Some Cold Water
If you’re feeling really anxious and need an immediate way to relax, activating the mammalian dive reflex can be effective. Here’s how it works: when your body believes you’re drowning, it will decrease your heart rate to help you survive. Thankfully, you don’t have to actually be drowning to benefit from this instinctual reflex. If you hold your breath and dunk your head in icy water for 30 seconds, you’ll experience the same effect. Obviously, bringing a bowl of ice water to your next interview probably won’t land you your dream job. However, you can stimulate a milder version of this reflex by going into the bathroom and dabbing and some cold water right under your eyes. I’ve tried and it and it really works. If you have a heart condition or eating disorder, please talk to your doctor before trying this out.
Job interviews and the anxiety that often comes with them aren’t a whole lot of fun. However, once you've learned how to control anxiety, you can manage your fears so that you land that next amazing opportunity. The best part is that the relaxation techniques and skills I’ve discussed in this article work for almost any stressful situation and can improve your mental health overall if you practice them repeatedly. So, once you get that job, you can use these skills to thrive and grow in your workplace too.
Rebecca Fraynt has a PhD in Clinical Psychology and is an all-around healthcare nerd. She lives near Seattle with her husband, toddler, and two rescue chihuahuas. When she's not working or chasing her dogs or child around the house, she's guzzling coffee, reading, or binge watching Star Trek.