Dealing With Nerves: The Power of Labeling and Reframing

Jerry Seinfeld joked that the number one fear in America is public speaking, and death comes in second. So, at a funeral, you’re better off being in the casket than delivering the eulogy! I can definitely relate—a significant portion of my time spent coaching even senior-level executives deals with the issue of nerves.

The fear of speaking in front of groups is such an established fact of life for most people that it would seem nothing new can be said about how to combat it. Any book or course on presentations carries a comprehensive list of cures: prepare, breathe deeply, give yourself a pep talk, picture the audience naked, etc.

With so much advice out there, can there possibly be something new to say about the subject? I believe there is. Modern brain science points the way to a new approach by giving us a deeper understanding of what actually happens in our brains when we are under stress. This approach involves talking to yourself, but the message is actually the opposite of what we are normally told to say to ourselves. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first we need to understand a little about how our brains are structured and wired.

Deep in our brain are little bits of tissue about the size and shape of an almond collectively called the amygdala. The amygdala functions like an overly sensitive alarm system in a home, poised to detect—and instantly react to—any hint of a threat from the environment. It’s amazingly fast and decisive, causing us to react before our conscious minds are even aware of what’s going on. That’s why we can swerve so quickly when a car pulls out in front of us. It’s also autocratic: it can override our best intentions and command our body to fight, flee or freeze.

When the amygdala detects a threat, it triggers a flood of hormones which mobilize your sympathetic nervous system for action: the proverbial “fight, flight, or freeze” response, raising your heart rate (shallow breathing, heart flutter), redirecting the blood from your extremities to your major muscles, (“cold feet”), and shutting down your digestive system (“butterflies”, dry mouth).

The amygdala is a fantastic asset in a physically dangerous environment, where threats can kill us before we can analyze the situation and devise a response. Unfortunately, it can’t tell the difference between an actual physical threat and a stressful situation such as the few minutes before a presentation.

By priming the body for action, the amygdala turbocharges your capacity for action. If you can harness that energy, your performance takes off. When you can’t harness it correctly, you choke. The key is to use the boost without letting it take control of the performance—that’s the difference between chokers and champions.

There are two ways to do this. The surest way is to have practiced the performance so many times that you operate automatically. Unfortunately, you probably don’t have time for this in your day job.

The other way is to give your conscious mind control over your amygdala. The trick is to forget what you’ve heard about positive self-talk, the common wisdom that you should talk to yourself and think positive thoughts, in effect denying what you’re actually feeling at the moment. So, you’re advised to tell yourself you’re not nervous, you’re feeling good, etc. Honestly, how often does that really work? The moment you tell yourself you’re not nervous, another voice in your mind pushes back: “Oh, yes I am! Who are you kidding?” In effect, trying to deny what you’re feeling actually can increase those feelings.

The solution is not to deny what you’re feeling, but to put a label on it it. More specifically, state your feelings “out loud” in your mind. You can tell yourself: “Okay, I can feel my heart rate speeding up. My mouth is starting to go dry. Yup, I’m feeling nervous now, right on schedule.”

When you label your emotions, you engage the language function in the left lobe of the pre-frontal cortex. Functional MRI studies show that the act of labeling in stressful situations actually diverts blood flow from the amygdala to the pre-frontal cortex, in effect putting your conscious mind back in control. That proves it works in the lab, but more importantly to me, I’ve proven it to myself in speaking situations and in other stressful conditions. (It works in tense confrontations and negotiations, but that’s a topic for a future post.)

The next step is to reframe what you’re feeling. The symptoms you’re feeling are not only exactly what you should be feeling at that point, but they are your body’s way of telling you that it is primed to perform at its best—if you let it. In fact, if you’re not nervous before an important presentation, that’s when you should really be worried. Tell yourself, “I’m charged up and that means I’m going to have the passion and strength to deliver an excellent presentation. Everything’s in place to do my best.”

Label and reframe: when it comes to dealing with nerves, honesty is the best policy, even when you’re talking to yourself.

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  • Brian,

    You’re exactly right, and I hadn’t thought about it that broadly. Richard Feynman said: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you’re the easiest person to fool.”

  • Bill,

    Thanks for the kind words, which I really appreciate coming from someone with your speaking experience. You brought out a good point which I had planned to address in a future post: another excellent mental strategy is to focus externally rather than internally, where the insecurity lies. Great sports psychologists teach their clients this technique, especially to pitchers in baseball, who are probably much more vulnerable to stage fright than just about any other athlete.

  • Bill Davidson


    I totally agree. Just got off the stage where I was in front of 80 of our top industry analysts. Right on schedule I got a little warm and my mind started to race. It definitely works when you harness that energy . I often compare it to the amazingly brilliant criminal. You hear people say, “if he only used his incredible brain for good.” I do find that I can better harness the energy if I keep myself occupied right until I go on stage. This morning, I arrived an hour early and surveyed the room I’d be speaking in. I find walking in to an already familiar room helps harness the energy. I then spend time greeting the familiar faces in the room and I look for where they are sitting. Once I start my presentation I make eye contact with those people as a way to get rolling. You’ve given me so much good advice over the years it’s nice to see you sharing it with others on through this blog.

  • Spot-on stuff, Jack!

    In a world where so many are advsing others to try to talk themselves out of what they are truly experiencing (and in many cases, who they really are), I appreciate this approach because it is grounded in authenticity and candor (“I am feeling fear right now and if I channel this correctly, I can perform at a higher level” instead of “I’m not feeling this because it is awful to feel it and could ruin me”).

    I might add that many are finding that this candor-centered approach can positively impact overall life satisfaction as well. Living our real experience (including fear and fact-based reframes) rather than fighting it/attempting to fool ourselves seems to be correlated with a richer, more deeply satisfying professional and personal life.

    Thanks for posting this, Jack; I continue to appreciate your fact-based, to-the-point nuggets of wisdom!

  • Bob,
    Your comment brings up an excellent point for those who don’t speak that often. Even people who speak as often as you do get the butterflies. That shows that it’s completely natural, and that you’re stressed because you truly care about doing a good job. Let me know how it works out!

  • bob fish

    Really good advise. I speak to groups of people for a living ranging from 5-100 two to three times each week and fortunately for me the presentation is always similar with slight variations in product only. I still get butterflies every-time and would love to find a way to at least minimize them.
    I am speaking to company with 30 people tomorrow during lunch and i will try your approach of label and re-frame. I’ll let you know.

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