You know the feeling: As the minutes count down to your big job interview and your stomach twists into tighter and tighter knots. That faint twinge of anxiety that has been building all day continues to worsen. Then comes the actual interview, and your mind is a whirlwind of thoughts. You find yourself speaking with a breathlessness that’s out of character for you. What’s happening?
To find out, I spoke with psychologist Dr. Sherry Benton, founder and chief science officer of Tao Connect, an online behavioral health platform. She explained why our nerves act up in high-pressure situations and how to get them back on track.
Why we get nervous:
According to Benton, nervousness often happens when we do something that feels like a performance. “This is true for a job interview, an athletic competition, or a public speaking event,” she says.
The good news is that our brains are preparing us—they want us to be prepared, excited, and, in the moment, ready to win. “The brain’s limbic system fires and makes us ready to do whatever we need to do,” she says, whether that’s flight or fight. So don’t feel there is something wrong with you. Recognize that your body is speaking to you, and trying its best to help.
All you need to do is moderate the nerves. “You want some performance anxiety, but not too much,” says Benton. “You want your nerves to show you’re interested and excited. But if you’re overstressed, you won’t do well either. So strive for the middle zone.”
Four ways to recalibrate your nerves
Here are four ways you can get control of your jitters and deliver your best performance in job interviews.
1. Face your fears
The starting point, according to Benton, “is to write down those things you fear when you’re nervous.” For example, you may be thinking, “It will be catastrophic if I don’t get this job.” Or “My family won’t love me.” Or “I’ll look like a loser.” Writing down these thoughts, says Benton, will show how unsubstantiated they really are.
Of course, you can’t put pen to paper in the middle of an interview, so if your nerves get out of control while you’re being interviewed, engage in positive self-talk. For example, if you’re afraid that it will be a catastrophe if you don’t get the job, you might say to yourself, “Even if this doesn’t work out, I will have other opportunities.”
It’s a good idea to have a one-sentence mantra to deliver to yourself in the interview any time you got tense or nervous. It might be, “I am an accomplished PR professional,” or “I have a huge list of wins behind me.”
2. Breathe deeply
Second, make sure you remember to breathe. “When we are in high-stress situations, our heart goes a little faster, and our breathing becomes more rapid and shallower,” says Benton. “So consciously breathing more deeply helps us relax.”
If you’re still nervous, try four-count breathing, says Benton. “Breathe in, hold it as you count one-two-three-four, then breathe out, and hold your breath for four seconds,” she says. “[This breathing] slows down your heart, slows down your body, and reduces the amount of cortisol and adrenalin you’re using.” By slowing down your breathing, you’ll sound more centered and confident.
3. Think before you speak
Third, take time to respond to questions, and know what you want to say before you begin talking. One of the liabilities of nervousness is that it makes us panic and rush to answer before we’ve formulated our response. We start talking, and talk and talk without knowing where we are going.
The solution is to listen to the question fully—and then pause before replying. Your interviewer will be impressed by the fact that you listened and then had the confidence to wait, formulate your reply, and then speak. (For more on how to answer questions on the spot, see my book, Impromptu: Leading in the Moment.)
4. Practice, practice, practice
Fourth, calm your nerves by getting lots of practice.
A good way to do this is to role-play your interviews before you have them. Ask a friend or a coach to quiz you on all the possible questions you could be asked in that next interview. In fact, give that person all the questions you feel you could be asked, and then develop the best answers to them. Keep the answers short and focused—one message per answer.
Another way to get valuable practice, says Sherry Benton, “is to apply for jobs that aren’t necessarily a priority for you.” Go to those interviews just to get practice. Each time you interview, the performance gets easier and easier. When you finally land that exciting job interview, you’ll be ready to kill it.
Nervousness is not a bad thing; it’s our body’s way of preparing us for a challenge. But don’t ignore it. Work with it to make sure you have just the right amount.