Do you feel nerves or anxiety adversely affects your performance at times? Here are some thoughts on why this happens and some tips to help combat nerves and fears in the future.

Firstly we need to consider that we are working with a brain that is sometimes a little out of step with our twenty first century lives. At the seat of our modern day, logical thinking brain is the Amygdala (from the Greek word for almond). It is thought that this structure was in place before our new larger, cognitive brain structure developed. Despite this larger and more developed brain structure, the Amygdala retains it’s position as ‘driver’ in matters of emotion. If this area is damaged, in an accident for example, the person suffers from what is known as ‘affective blindness’ or an inability to determine emotional significance or meaning. It is the root of passion, love, hate and tears and explains why intelligent people can become overwhelmed by a wave of emotion that overrides their rational thinking. Disastrous consequences, such as murder or other crimes of passion, can often be explained by the nature of the Amygdala.

Most people have heard of the ‘fight and flight’ response and I would like to introduce a new variant on this theme entitled read/respond.  To explain this reaction simply: we ‘read’ a situation and, if not careful, go straight to ‘respond’ without thinking through to our desired outcome. Prisons have significant numbers of inmates who, not only failed to read a situation correctly, but also failed to think through to the consequences of their instinctive response. That is, they instinctively went from ‘read’ to ‘respond’ without the cognitive thought process in between.

The excellent books on Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman explain how advances in technology have allowed us to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the human brain; its activity and function. New brain scanning techniques have shown that the architecture of the brain is set up in such a way that the Amygdala is the first port of call for the information delivered by our eyes and ears. It can start a physiological reaction long before our logical thinking neocortex has had a chance to come to a rational decision.  This is why we, as cavemen or cavewomen, would have instinctively run from a sabre- toothed tiger rather than begin a group flip-chart discussion on the best escape route – using our thinking brain to solve the problem. In short, this is a structure that at times can override, or hijack, our reactions. The brain is set up to help us to survive because as cavemen and cavewomen thinking things through may just have got us eaten.

So, in the twenty first century when faced with something that makes us nervous, for example; first date, job interview, appraisal with a line manager we find challenging, driving test or presentation, we can experience certain physiological reactions.  Your own symptoms may include some or all of the following; sweaty palms, blushing, shaking, shallow breathing, high-pitched voice, increased heart rate and going completely ‘blank’.

The amygdala’s role is to help us survive and these symptoms are a sign that the physiological survival response, i.e. ‘fight or flight.’ or read/respond is getting organised. This instinctive response has enabled us to run away or do battle in order to survive as humans. It is a reaction that is ideal for surviving a meeting with a sabre-toothed tiger, but not helpful in an interview, driving test or presentation. This cognitive hijacking in order to fight or run has the potential to inhibit or crush our performance. Just at a time when we need to engage our cognitive thinking brain in order to ‘think’ our way through to an answer, a word or a thought through reaction the Amygdala bypasses our logical rational thinking ability to enable a swift, physical response instead.

Amazingly, the Amygdala can also be triggered by a link with a memory. A certain smell, a look, a sound can all take us back to another time and situation and produce the same reaction. The Amygdala reacts in order to ‘save us’ again when it recognises a situation. If the situation has been a negative experience in the past, nerves and fears may creep up on us and trigger a reaction.

So, if we accept that we have this design fault in our brains that causes us to react without thinking in certain situations, then what can we do to help ourselves? How can we stop and make ourselves think in order to make rational decisions. In short, how can we avoid going straight from read to respond?

We need to THINK and THEN respond in order to create the desired outcome


  • Have you done sufficient preparation? If you have you will feel more confident and relaxed which supports clear brain function. “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail”
  • Recognise the symptoms of ‘read/respond’, does the situation allow for you to take a ‘time-out’ in order to calm down and think the problem through? If not, if an instant response is required then rehearse or role play. Mentally rehearsing each and every action and step, over and over again. This way you are creating a mental ‘furrow’ to follow and you are more likely to get it right under pressure.
  • Breathing. It is the out breath that is helpful; blow out slowly to release tension which sends signals back to the brain that you are not in danger. In times of fear we take very short intakes of breath and when out of danger/interview we tend to make deep outward sighs. If you practice meditation, or relaxation techniques, the ability to calm yourself down can be a real asset.
  • Wear comfortable clothing, anything too tight as your heart rate increases will feel constricting and uncomfortable, adding to the pressure. Is your collar size too tight, can you loosen your tie?
  • Visualise yourself in the situation, do you get a nervous reaction? If so, what is causing it? Address the issue: is there a particular aspect about which you are under confident?
  • If you have been told that your performance was poor in the past, visualise the situation again. Get back to the picture and the feeling. Put the picture within a large frame then slowly reduce the size of your negative picture within the frame until it is smaller, smaller, and smaller still. Make it tiny and move it to the bottom right hand corner of the frame; it is hardly visible. Rub it out, it is gone. Your Amygdala does not need to reference it each time you get to the simulator; it is not relevant any more, move forward.
  • Think back to a time when you were very confident, competent and got a good result. Go back there now and again just before your go in to relax yourself so you continue to think clearly.
  • Visualise a time of great success for you. See the picture with you in it, walk around the picture, turn back and look at it and feel what you felt. See and feel your confidence again, anchor that feeling.
  • Understand the role of your Amygdala and you are half way to controlling its effects! Next time the unexpected happens, take control of the situation. Go through ‘read – think – respond’ rather than the irrational, Amygdala-led ‘read-respond’.
  • Help yourself to focus by creating tools to keep you on track at the start of your presentation when you are most likely to falter. Our coaching and training on Effective Presentations support delegates to recognise and deal with this reaction and offers a number of strategies that work – see our feedback section.
  • Put irrational fears into perspective. Think of them as paper sabre-toothed tigers; they are not real and can be blown away.


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