Handling Nervousness and Other Feelings

by Alan Brandis, Ph.D.

Nervous feelings are the result of a particular thought pattern, which we may shift into when we anticipate failure or rejection. A "thought pattern" is a set of feelings and images that are strongly associated with each other. One image or feeling can "call up" the entire set that it's associated with. The more times you call up that image or feeling, the more compelling it becomes.

For example, the thought, "I might forget my speech" triggers images of losing one's place in front of a group, which triggers feelings of embarrassment. Anticipating danger has survival value, so of course the brain runs that pattern past us hundreds of times - each time making the association stronger. By the time we get to the actual event, the brain has recorded hundreds of (imagined) failures. Almost no one reviews his or her successes that persistently!

Here's a way to utilize your brain's power of association to create powerful, positive thought patterns and overcome nervousness or other bad feelings:

  1. Select several words that describe personal attributes or qualities that would help you overcome the negative feelings. For example, a person nervous about giving a speech might select the words Confident, Relaxed, and Powerful.
  2. For each word you select, think of a specific event in which you demonstrated that quality. For example: "I was most Confident when I knew I could run for that winning touchdown; I was most Relaxed when I took that long walk by the river last summer; I was most Powerful when I confronted my neighbor about the mess in his yard."
  3. Select a physical trigger to associate with those events. Something you can do secretly is best, such as rubbing your thumb and finger together, or touching a keychain or a piece of jewelry. For the example above, a keychain with a favorite football team logo would work well.
  4. For each Word/Event combination, say the word to yourself and think of the image while using the physical trigger. For example, the person in the example would rub the football keychain while saying, "Confident!" to himself and re-viewing the image of the winning touchdown. The stronger the Confident feeling gets, the harder he would rub the keychain. This makes the association between the image, the feeling and the physical trigger much stronger.
  5. Once all the Word/Event combinations have been "anchored" to the trigger, test it by triggering it a few times. The strong, positive feelings should be obvious to you. If they are not, repeat step 4.
  6. Once your trigger works well, give it the "acid test." As you think about the upcoming event that makes you nervous, use your trigger. Your expectations about that event should change.
  7. Repeat step 4 every so often to reinforce and strengthen the trigger.You can also use it “on the fly” if you become nervous.
  8. Don't teach this to anyone you want to beat.