Emotions can seem like an overwhelming force of nature that can stop us from performing at our best in critical moments.
However, there are many ways for you to overcome fear, anxiety and a crushing lack of confidence, take control of your state and achieve the results you deserve.
In fact, an experiment with milkshakes gives us a glimpse into how this works.
Alia Crum, a psychologist and researcher at the University of Columbia studying the placebo effect, decided to find out just how much our mindset contributes to our feelings. Her way of testing this theory was through food labels. In this milkshake experiment, Alia gave a group of people a ‘Sensishake’ — zero fat, zero sugar and only 140 calories. Their ghrelin (hunger hormone) was tested before and after they drank it, and showed that their hunger levels barely changed.
The following week, the same people were asked to drink another milkshake called ‘Decadence You Deserve’ — 56g of sugar, 30g of fat and 620 calories. Their ghrelin levels dropped significantly, taking their hunger feelings away. The surprise? It was the same drink, with a different label.
Crum’s experiment proves we can control how we feel by changing what we focus on — which can also be applied to the anxiety or nervousness we feel before giving a big presentation. By switching focus from poor-state experiences to peak-state experiences, we can walk into a presentation feeling powerful and confident instead of nervous or unsure.
Here are a few ways to practice:
1) THINK BACK TO A TIME WHEN THINGS WENT WELL.
One of the most important things you learn as a public speaker is to control your “Monkey Mind”. This emotional part of your brain wants to keep you safe.
Your “Monkey Mind” will get scared when it notices you’re anxious, and so in order to help you avoid more pain, it’ll focus on memories of other situations where you felt stressed and replay them. It’s doing this instinctually.
So, in order to avoid the anxiety from spiralling out of control, you have to give the monkey something better to watch.
When you have an important event coming up and you start to feel anxious, you can think back to moments when you felt in a peak state — meaning you were feeling at your absolute best.
Ideally, in my experience, it works best if you replay an event that is similar to the one you are about to be in. If I am about to speak to a group of 100 people sitting at round tables, I search my memories for the same kind of situation that went well.
If you don’t have any similar memories to draw from then get as close as you can, and over time you’ll have more positive experiences to leverage against your monkey mind.
2) THINK ABOUT A TIME YOU FELT POWERFUL.
There will be times when you’re caught in a totally new experience and you won’t have similar experiences to pull from.
That’s okay — you don’t need them. Instead, you can think about other instances in which you felt your best.
Essentially, you need to give your “Monkey Mind” something reassuring, empowering and inspiring to replay. Add one event on top of another event. Add more events whenever you have a peak state experience so the monkey will have more to watch.
What this does is it brings to the front of your mind all the feelings associated with that accomplishment or empowerment. You’ll be tricking your brain into feeling calmer, more confident, maybe even a little euphoric. And then as you step into your big meeting or presentation, you’ll be taking those feelings with you.
3) THINK ABOUT YOUR CORE VALUES.
Psychologists David Cresswell and David Sherman ran a series of experiments to see if they could help people get the “Monkey Mind” under control in situations of high stress.
In the first study, known as the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST), they asked two groups of people to give a speech in front of a panel of judges, who had been instructed to give no positive reactions. The first group was told to write a full page about a deep personal value, such as being a good father, honesty, trying your hardest, or any other value that meant something important to them. The other group was told to write about something that they didn’t care about.
Both groups were then asked to give a speech about what they’d written. Once that was over, both groups were given a tough maths challenge while the panel continually said, ‘Go faster!’
The group who had written something that meant nothing to them had a spike in their stress levels. However, the group who wrote about a meaningful value showed no change. Their cortisol levels were the same before and after the event.
Essentially, the experiment demonstrates that by focusing on your core values, you can stay in a peak state when you need to, centered in the best version of yourself.
By focusing on your best self, you’ll move through the world with renewed confidence and a better understanding of how to conquer obstacles in your path. Your speaking will blossom and you’ll feel more in control of your emotions.
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