When I first heard what I’m about to share with you – I was shocked.
It didn’t make any sense. Actually, a lot of things human beings do or feel don’t make much sense, but this one took the cake.
A 1973 study at the University of Nebraska asked people to rank their most common fear. And…it wasn’t death. It wasn’t spiders. It wasn’t snakes, or the dentist, or a some sadist combination of all of these.
Actually, it was public speaking. Simply talking in front of a group of people. Something you’ve probably done in some form, your whole life.
But why are people so averse to speaking in public? Why is it the most common fear? Because no one likes to feel nervous.
The etymological root of nervousness is “in the nerves.” Nervousness isn’t something we ‘do’ in the head. It’s not something we can switch on and off with a positive thought. It’s something that happens in the body.
Depending on our psychological make up, it can be caused by seemingly nothing.
Maybe a friend makes a comment that sounds like a criticism, or your boss doesn’t smile back like she usually does. As soon as that feeling or nervous tension is triggered, the monkey mind can spin out of control for hours. Is your friend mad at you? Are you going to get fired? Is your dog sick? Are you sick? Are you going to die? Eventually your nerves calm down and the thoughts subside. But something tells you it’s just a matter of time before there’s something new to worry about.
But why can’t we get over these feelings of nervousness?
You’ve done your research. Maybe you’ve even been to a therapist. Maybe you’re a little anxious, maybe you’re very anxious. The point is, you want to know what you can do to feel better? What can you do to manage this nervousness and not be entirely dependent on medication. Fortunately, there’s good news—there are other ways to feel better. Just because you nervousness is a problem for you now, it doesn’t need to be that way forever.
Why Do We Get Nervous?
Fear is an important survival tool that we inherited from our hunter-gatherer. Importantly, we humans weren’t always the top of the food chain, we were also, at one point, the hunted.
Historian Yuval Noah Harari explains this in his landmark book, Sapiens;
“This is a key to understanding our history and psychology. Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was…only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain….. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.”
Being a little on edge and ready to jump and run at the first sudden noise helped our early ancestors survive in a dangerous world.
This feeling of being on edge is also known as the stress response. When something nearby threatens us, we are startled into action by the autonomic nervous system, a system that runs down the spine and connects the brain with our internal organs and circulatory system.
The stress response starts in a part of the brain called the amygdala. When we perceive a threat in the environment, the amygdala sends nerve signals to the hypothalamus, which relays the message to the rest of the body through the branch of the autonomic nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system.
The cascade of physical effects this sparks in the body is sometimes the fight-or-flight response. When your sympathetic nervous system is active, you might:
- Breathe more rapidly
- Sweat more than usual
- Feel your heart beating faster
- Experience an elevated body temperature
- Become more energetic and start pacing or shaking
We have this system to thank not only for our ability to run from physical danger, but also for our reactions to social threats like blushing when we feel embarrassed. People who are more nervous than others tend to have a more active sympathetic nervous system. While people with post-traumatic stress disorder or panic disorder tend to have a permanently hyper-active sympathetic nervous system, nervous people usually experience symptoms that are on the same spectrum. They may be milder, but steadier—a background hum rather than a sudden crescendo.
Why Am I So Nervous?
Some people who feel nervous all the time have anxiety disorders. They experience a range of symptoms related to anxiety that cause significant distress and interfere with their ability to function in everyday life. Some common anxiety disorders are:
- Panic disorder
- Specific phobias
- Social anxiety disorder
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder are now classified differently, but they were originally understood to be anxiety disorders. Each disorder causes different patterns of response to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
Some people use the terms “anxious” and “nervous” interchangeably. Generally, however, anxiety refers to something more severe than nervousness. If the reason you’re nervous is that you have an anxiety disorder, genetic factors may be the cause, or you may have experienced one or more traumatic events in your life you haven’t recovered from. In either case, anxiety disorders require treatment to manage and resolve.
If your nervous symptoms are less severe than symptoms of anxiety disorders, but still play a significant role in your life, you may have what psychiatrists used to call a “neurotic” personality type.
Basically, this means you get more stressed out by everyday events than other people do but function relatively normally without treatment. You might worry more, have nervous habits like pacing or babbling nervously when you’re overwhelmed, or constantly play out worst-case scenarios in your mind. The good news when you’re nervous or neurotic is that a lot of the same techniques that help people with anxiety disorders can actually help you thrive.
How to Stop Being Nervous (3 Key Secrets)
Anxiety responses and nervous reactions involve both the body and mind. Sometimes the restless, nervous thoughts seem to come first, and sometimes stress in your body is what clearly triggers your mind to start spinning the wheel of worry. In either case, both physical and mental techniques can help to tame an nervous monkey mind.
Calm Your Body
“The body is nothing but the visible aspect of the soul, and the soul is nothing but the invisible aspect of the body.” – Osho
For people with nervous temperaments, whose genes drive heightened stress responses in their bodies, physical interventions can be the most immediate and effective calming tools.
An old-fashioned way to refer to someone with a nervous disposition is to call them “high-strung.” Think of a thrumming rubber band: it’s vibrating with tension and ready to snap. When you’re wired this way, it can be hard to physically relax, which also keeps your mind spinning. Learning how to calm your body can help you counteract this nervous tension.
Engaging in relaxing physical activities takes your sympathetic nervous system offline and activates its counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system. That’s the system in your body that helps you relax so you can sleep, digest food, and restore your energy. Physical activities that promote the relaxation response include:
- Breathing deeply
- Playing with a pet
- Spending time in nature
- Using grounding techniques
- Doing vigorous aerobic exercise
- Doing yoga or other stretching exercises
- Practicing progressive relaxation exercises
- Enjoying baths or other calming everyday activities
- Soothing your gut with food, herbs, and supplements
High-energy physical activity revs up your sympathetic nervous system at first but then wears it out so it can rest afterward. The rush of endorphins that follows can be an immediate antidote to anxiety. When high-impact cardio is too much, stretching exercises that relax your muscles can help you release corresponding mental tension. Taking a bath has a similar effect, which you can enhance by surrounding yourself with calming scents. Walking can help you gather your thoughts, and walking in nature has additional anxiety-busting benefits.
One of the simplest ways to relax is to sit or lie in place and ground yourself in awareness of your immediate surroundings and sensations. In progressive relaxation exercises, you focus your attention on one part of your body after another, releasing tension as you go. Grounding exercises direct your attention to objects in the room or to other simple features of your environment.
The most timeless way to connect with the present moment is to focus on your breathing. As you place your attention on the sensation of the breath in your belly, your breathing naturally slows down. It can sometimes help to count to a certain number as you breathe in and out. Focus on the sensation of your diaphragm rising and falling as you breathe through your nose.
You Live What You Eat
What you eat and drink has a huge effect on your mental health. You might be aware that caffeine and other stimulants can make you feel nervous and jittery, but that’s only the beginning. Spicy food can also activate the sympathetic nervous system. Foods that are hard to digest or high in fat can make you feel sluggish and confused and make it harder for your brain to focus and let go of negative thoughts. Alcohol might temporarily calm you down but can also cause you to feel more anxious after it wears off than you otherwise would have been.
Digestive problems can trigger anxiety, so eating foods that ease digestion can counteract it. Fermented foods and beverages like pickles, yogurt, kefir, and kombucha can be as soothing to the mind as they are to the gut. In addition to promoting gut health, eating high-fiber foods can combat nervousness by helping you feel full, which kicks the parasympathetic nervous system into action. For people who are sensitive to fermented or high-fiber foods, taking probiotic supplements is another great option.
Many herbs and supplements are well known as anti-anxiety aids. Research shows that adaptogens like rhodiola, tulsi, and ashwagandha help the mind cope with stress. Other studies show that l-theanine, an amino acid found in tea leaves, has anti-stress effects. This means that when you need an energy boost, drinking tea can be a great choice as the calming effects of l-theanine may counteract some of the anxiety-inducing effects of caffeine.
Reprogram Your Mind
Another way to overcome anxiety or nervousness is to tackle your worried thoughts head-on. Whether your anxiety begins in your thoughts or your body, it tends to be your mind that keeps it going. Several activities and cognitive techniques can distract you from your thoughts, change how you interpret them, or deprive them of their power:
- Being creative
- Practicing inquiry
- Distracting yourself
- Setting calm anchors
- Engaging in anxious reappraisal
- Using cognitive behavioural techniques
- Practicing mindfulness for nervousness
- Doing exposure therapy for specific situations
Thoughts only have power when you believe in them, and many therapeutic methods for anxiety work by undermining stressful thoughts. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and inquiry techniques like Byron Katie’s Work and The Sedona Method use different strategies, but they all work by disrupting the link between thinking and emotion. In CBT, you uncover the way distorted thoughts drive fear and anxiety. In The Work, you ask whether something you’re thinking is true. In The Sedona Method, you learn how to let feelings go.
Another neat way to counteract anxiety is to trick your brain into thinking you’re excited instead of anxious. This is called anxious reappraisal. Both excitement and anxiety are triggered by the same cues from the sympathetic nervous system. The only difference is that we like how it feels to be excited but don’t like how it feels to be anxious. It’s amazing how different it feels to say, “I’m excited about my interview” instead of “I’m nervous about my interview.”
Another way to trick your brain is to create calm anchors, or physical gestures that evoke soothing memories of how you felt when good things happened to you. This technique helps you reset responses to events or circumstances you experience as negative because of what happened in the past. Similarly, exposure therapy, or reframing and gradually exposing yourself to situations that make you anxious, can help re-wire your brain’s response to anxiety triggers.
There are other ways to deprive your nervous thoughts of their power. In meditation and mindfulness, you learn how to let thoughts come and go without grasping on to them or feeding them. As you stop engaging with your thoughts, they start to slow down. It’s also harder to get hooked by a worried thought when you see it as something your brain is doing rather than a truth you must believe.
Doing something creative can counter anxiety on two different levels. The creative activity can serve as a distraction, but it can also turn negative thoughts and feelings into fuel, transmuting them into beautiful or healing images, music, or stories. In either case, the state of gentle focus and engagement you experience in a creative flow state can take you out of anxious thinking, help you feel in control, and even produce endorphins.
Journaling can induce a flow state, as any form of writing can, but it can also be an excellent problem-solving tool. Writing freely, without concern that anyone will see or judge what you write, can help you organise your thoughts and see them more clearly. As you form thoughts into a linear narrative, you can follow them to a solution or to a new point of view.
Master Your Monkey Mind and Master Your Nervousness
Any of the tools mentioned in this article can help you feel less nervous. Sometimes, however, people find the right approach that always does the trick for them, but this isn’t always what happens. It can feel exhausting when you’re constantly trying new techniques to tame your anxiety.
For a deeper dive into why you might be nervous all the time, check out the Project Monkey Mind Mastery Course. In it, I go over many of the techniques touched on here, and put them under the Monkey Mind framework. You’ll understand how to use the three pillars of self-control, self-knowledge, and self-transcendence to achieve long-lasting calm. With deeper insight into the different aspects of mind, you can change your brain’s patterns on a more fundamental level and enjoy a more lasting peace.