Lessons on How to Not Be Nervous at Work: 10 Essential Strategies

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woman nervous at work

© fizkes

Tanya Tarr
Tanya Tarr10
Have you ever had an overwhelming feeling of nervousness in the office? It might feel like a sense that tasks are not getting completed on time while you're coping with anxiety at work. You might be feeling agitated, anxious or stressed, and worry about things that may (and may not) be in your control. You're not alone — many people experience some level of nervousness and anxiety at work or before a job interview, or even before an important conversation — and once you’re already feeling nervous, it can be pretty hard to stay come and try to figure out how to not be nervous.
A key part of managing nerves — and your heart rate — is self agency: how you can take action and focus on what you can do to remove stressors, stay present, and have some fun in the process. Here are 10 ways you can move through your nervousness — whether you define it as stage fright, performance anxiety or just a general (and overwhelming) anxious feeling.

1. Just Say No to Push Notifications

A key part of managing your nerves is to minimize disruption and distraction. Whether it's a push notification from your favorite news outlet, a message from your partner or a group text from your best friend, push notifications can unexpectedly give you a jolt of nervous energy (not necessarily the good kind) and disrupt the flow of your day.
One easy way walk back this source of nervousness is to either mute the notifications on each application, or just turn off the sound and ringer to your phone. By turning notifications off and removing the sound each time a notification comes in, you are establishing a zone of peace and you will be able to control when you allow disruption into your workday. I also tend to work with the screen of my phone facing down, or tucked away in a hard-to-reach place (or in another room.) This also puts some space between where you're working and your phone as a constant source of interruption.

2. Write a To-Do List of Tasks on Paper

While there are thousands of task managing applications out in the world, nothing is as mind-clearing as writing down a list of things that need to get done. Nervousness at work can often occur because there might be a sense that something or things aren't getting done.
Try this method the next time you want to write your nervous feeling away: make a list of all the tasks you can think of, and don't worry about prioritizing the list. Just dump all the tasks on the list, and write them down as they come to you, whether work or home related. Then, circle all the work tasks (or highlight them.) Assign a number to each task, based on priority, like what needs to get done first or what has the closest deadline. Rewrite the list of work tasks. Examine the top priority task and give yourself 15 minutes to only think about that one task. Write down a bulleted list of subtasks to complete the priority task and get moving! To help get you started, here are 32 to-do list apps to streamline your life.

3. Be in Your Body by Thinking of the Soles of Your Feet

Another way to move away from feeling like a nervous wreck at work is to turn your awareness and thoughts towards a part of your body. One technique I learned from expert media trainer and producer Joel Silberman for banishing nervousness — particularly before going out on a stage in front of an audience — is to literally think of the soles of my feet. Feel the sensations in your feet and in your soles. Do you feel balanced? Really plant your feet on the ground and feel confident in your soles.
In addition to feeling confident on your feet, deep belly or diaphragmatic breathing can also settle and dismiss any feeling of fear or nervousness. By belly breathing, I mean a deep inhale and exhale, and on the exhale, allowing your stomach muscles to fully relax. Some people place one hand on their chest and the other on their stomach, to help them feel the inhale and exhale. This type of breathing will signal to your body to shut off the production of cortisol, a stress hormone that your body may produce when you feel nervousness or stress. By being in the soles of your feet and breathing deeply, you can help your physiological self return to a state of calm.

4. Name and Describe 5 Objects in the Room

One way to conquer anxiety and nervousness is to pay attention to the details around you. This is a technique I learned (and personally use) to manage nervous panic attacks. I will look around the room and either silently to myself or verbally out loud will describe at least five objects. This includes the color, position and distance or location relative to where I am sitting in the room. The more descriptive the detail, the better.
So I might say out loud or to myself that I am sitting at a wide, pale yellow desk made out of pinewood, with a green lamp that has an off-white lampshade. On occasion, I might try to inject humor into the description. So I might describe the green lamp as being reliable but in need of a good dusting, in addition to a dusty, tattered off-white lampshade. The verbalizing of details helps return you to the present, which can help you shed any nervousness you might be experiencing at the moment. By locating and describing the five objects, you can control where your attention is, and reaffirm focusing on the present tasks at hand.

5. Do Some Scenario Planning

Consider leaning into the source of your nervousness by thinking about the extremes of what could happen in the future. What's the worst-case scenario? Or the unexpected best thing that could happen? Write these potential futures down. Then consider what consequences or steps you could take to recover or benefit from them.
Would the worst thing to happen be that you lose your job unexpectedly? Consider updating your resume with skills you can't afford to leave off or your LinkedIn account, and consider what other options you have available. What if you’re worried about bombing an interview or presentation? Spend some time preparing so that you feel more confident going into it, and remember that most people suffer from a fear of public speaking — so even if you do feel like you’ve embarrassed yourself, you’ve likely done so in front of a sympathetic audience.
Worried about a natural disaster? Locate and plan out the quickest and safest escape route. What about a promotion and a large budget increase? What if you had the opportunity to hire and manage more staff? What problems could they tackle and solve? How could you take your work into a new and exciting direction? Write out the top three or four scenarios, and write down with as much or as little details as you would need to outline your action steps. Move through the discomfort of nervousness by planning for the worst and best potential future.

6. Read and Write an Empowering and Affirming Statement

While the tactic might seem humble, reading and writing an affirmative statement about your own talents or abilities can be a powerful form of emotional self-defense. Consider squashing nervousness by activating a sense of pride through writing or reading an affirmation about yourself. Also affirm your right to belong where ever you are, especially your office. And it's not just a way to make you feel good. Research has shown that self-affirmation — particularly for women and people of color — can have a measurable and positive effect on performance.
Renowned social psychologist Dr. Claude Steele examined the effect of self-affirmation specifically on African American students and found that when they felt affirmed, they were more able to tolerate threats because they had bolstered a sense of self-worth. Additional studies that examined Steele's findings as it related to women and other students of color found the same results. So when you feel nervous in the office, consider taking a few minutes to write and read an affirmation about your skills and abilities that you bring to your work. What ability are you the most proud of? What skill has had the deepest impact on your team? Writing and reading the affirmation can have a profound and positive effect.

7. Take a Brisk Walk

Nervousness — like stress and anxiety — can be managing by moderate exercise. Find ways to allow yourself time to walk away from your office for a brief period of time. Fit in a few extra steps by parking further away from the front door of the office or allow yourself a quick 10-to-15 minute walk to get a cup of tea. Research has shown that even light exercise like these examples can help reduce anxiety and nervousness by increasing cell generation in the brain. More cell growth can also mean better potential problem-solving. Walking has also been shown to help release endorphins and other positive brain chemistry that can help manage stress and nervousness. Research has shown that, when low-intensity walking is paired with a simple meditation of counting steps (only "one, two, one, two"), the positive benefits are equal to those walking at a higher pace, and they have greater positive results when compared to a group that only walk.

8. Break from Your Comfort Zone While Learning How to Do Something New

Break through nervousness and perfectionist tendencies by doing something you know you might get a little wrong the first time, like making an origami paper crane. The Japanese art of origami, or paper folding, is taught all over the world as a form of art and also mindfulness. All it to participate is time, instructions and a sheet of paper.
As noted by Dr. Marlynn Wei, the practice of origami can help a person release a sense of harsh self-judgement or other dynamics that might cause someone to be nervous, in addition to many other benefits. Similar to naming objects in a room, folding an origami shape can help a nervous person return to the details of the present, releasing them of that emotion and anxiety. The trick is to try an activity that will help you stay present and not be attached to a rigid outcome.

9. Name Your Feelings to Help Release Them

Whether you write them down, or email them to a friend, it's important to name the emotions — including nervousness — that are holding you back from your best work in the office.
It's important to also differentiate between nervousness and excitement. Being on the verge of a nervous breakdown is not the same as having some nervous energy and adrenaline. Nervousness can sometimes be a feeling of anticipation. Physically, it might feel the same — a more rapid heartbeat, sweaty hands, a feeling of being jittery. Those feelings are associated with increase adrenaline production.
By naming the emotions or feelings you are experiencing, you can reduce their severity. Dr. Dan Siegel says that when we 'name and tame' the emotions we experience, we can understand those emotions and not just be overwhelmed by them. So write down what you are experiencing on a sheet of paper, and then rip the paper up and throw it away! Or find an accountability partner in a friend, and email away your nervousness. You have the power to name, tame and evict any nervousness you might feel in the office.

10. Make a New Friend at Work

The positive benefits of friendship — including those made in the workplace — are an important method to reduce stress. Recent research has found that friendships are so powerful, they can reduce stress and nervousness, and increases people's tolerance for pain. While talking to new people can potentially create another type of nervousness, the benefits could be worth the risk. (Just note that work friends can hurt your career if you're not careful.)
Making friends at work can not only reduce a sense of nervousness, but can also created relationships and trust that can build better teams that are more productive, accountable and collaborative. There might even be a gender-specific reason to why making a new friend can reduce nervousness and anxiety. Research by Dr. Shelley Taylor at UCLA found that when the stress response of only women is examined, there is a stress response beyond the classic fight or flight. She named that response "tend and befriend." Women, when confronted with a stressor, would naturally tend more vulnerable members of her circle (those that were very young or old), or she would seek out other relationships for mutual defense or a good chat. All these actions help produce neurotransmitters that release stress in the brain. And they can help reduce or squash a sense of nervousness, too.

11. Meditate or Practice Yoga, Boxing or Another Sport

You can also beat the nerves by meditating or practicing yoga, boxing or another activity that calms you and releases endorphins. The sympathetic nervous system is affected the most by our stresses, and meditation is proven to dramatically reduce stress by healthfully slowing down the heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure, and by soothing our fight or flight functions.
Likewise, practicing yoga or boxing, focusing on your breath or your movements, can give the same effect. It takes your mind off the stress at hand and focuses you in the moment by recentering you. For example, yoga is a mind-body practice that takes all of your attention. It combines physical poses, controlled breathing and meditation and/or relaxation to do, which helps lower stress, blood pressure and the heart rate.

Tanya Tarr helps people build strategic plans for their life and businesses and helpes them stay healthy in the process, too. Since 2000, she has supported executive leaders in government and public education, and managed political and advocacy campaigns across the US. Tanya has a masters of science in performance measurement from Carnegie Mellon University and is a certified health coach. She is currently writing a manual and curriculum on collaborative negotiation technique and adaptive leadership skills.