When looking to understand why one gets anxious in certain situations, it is best to start with why we get anxiety.
Anxiety isn’t necessarily bad or good. It is our body’s evolutionary response to an unknown situation. We follow certain cues that lead us to feel angsty due to our programming. A big hooded guy approaching you at 3 am on a shady street signals uncertainty and danger. We can’t help but feel fear, despite the mob of angry Redditors that will persecute you for your racial bias.
But fear not my friends! The anxious amongst us understand that it is a subconscious force we are dealing with, and no shaming tactic will ultimately drive you to fix this.
The truth is that sometimes anxious feelings are further perpetuated by our environment growing up including childhood events. An absent father or mother might cause us to be much more approval seeking, and in a public speaking environment, it can be quite obvious. However, it is human nature to seek approval from the tribe, so we can’t read into these things too deeply. Like all things, it is one part nature, one part nurture. Some people are just naturally anxious. It’s in their DNA. A Woody Allen or a George Costanza had to have some genetic disposition fo neuroses and anxiety, right? Just as some other public figures must have been born with steel-like Dwayne Johnson or Will Smith.
But that doesn’t mean the Rock or The Fresh Prince never feel anxious. They have to. Even if they say they don’t. I wouldn’t believe them for a second.
However you seem to be on the outside, I would go as far to bet that everyone mentioned in the above few paragraphs used to have much more fear prior to any performance when they were starting out than they did when they were 1 year, 5 years or 10 years into their career.
This means that anxiety dissipates over time. Why is this? Do these successful people take hot baths in kalonip soaked jacuzzis?
Whatever the reason may be, I have found a simple formula that will explain how anxiety is reduced.:
Anxiety Reduction Formula :
Anxiety Reduction Rate =
Anxiety Level At Onset of Task/ Number of times experienced Doing Task
The number one way to lower anxiety when facing a difficult task is to face that fear, muster up the courage, and just do it regardless of the consequences. Then, go back again and again, and learn from the things you did wrong.
Here are a few examples of this formula in play.
Example #1: Standup Comedy
Doing your first standup set is one of the most nerve-racking things you could do. I will never forget all of those stone-cold faces staring up at me at my first open mic.
Most comics I know bomb their first time. And then when you get off the stage, it feels terrible. But experienced comics will just tell you to keep doing it, and keep writing. Once you get the writing down, and you’ve been on stage a handful of times, you realize that the crowd doesn’t matter, and you have to just deliver the joke.
So then you start to focus on the delivery. You ask yourself things like…
“Am I taking my time and saying every word?
“Am I rushing through different parts of the joke?”
“Am I sticking the punch line as I should?”
Things start to slow down because you realize that no matter how many times you get on stage, there will always be another opportunity to get up. You understand that nothing detrimental happens to you after you bomb, and you start to actually develop a sense of humor about bombing during a comedy set.
Since it doesn’t actually matter if you bomb, you start to care less. You start to have anxiety cloud your brain, less often, to free up creative energy.
Standup Anxiety Reduction Formula:
Level of Anxiety Doing Standup Comedy =
Base line anxiety level / Number of Similar Sets Done Prior
Example #2: Sales
Anyone that has been in sales knows that sometimes you only get one shot at impressing a prospect that is on the other end of the phone . Or even more nerve-racking, on the other side of a board room, where you are presenting to buyers in person.
But with interactions with human beings like this you can recognize patterns each time amongst a profile or set of profiles. These interactions start to seem eerily similar to one another by like the 10th sales call. Knowing that you will pick up on these patterns in itself can somewhat calm your nerves when getting started in sales. It may suck at first, but just knowing it will get better because you are above average in intelligence can set you at ease.
After the maybe 20 or so sales calls, you can anticipate questions and objections, pitch whatever product you are pitching much more seamlessly while injecting your personality in it, and be confident in the outcome because you’ve been there before. Naturally, you become less anxious, because you know what to expect.
Sometimes it really is just a matter of knowing what to expect. Your 1st time at the Marajuana dispensary can feel kind of weird and naughty, but by the 100th pickup, it seems routine.
If we are 75-99% certain that a sales call will go a certain way, then there is more certainty in the future. And all anxiety really is could be simplified in the uncertainty of what will happen in the immediate future.
Sales Anxiety Reduction Formula:
Level of Anxiety in a Sales Interaction =
Anxiety Level at Beginning of the Call / Number of Sales Calls You’ve run in the past
Example #3: Language Learning
Learning to speak a foreign language interestingly draws many similarities to both sales and standup comedy. It is mostly due to the inability to speak a language, which draws comparisons to using language in a sales context (language that will be compelling enough to persuade a skeptical business prospect) or language in a comedy context (using verbal skills that are funny enough to make an audience laugh and not boo you off stage).
When you first start speaking a foreign language, you have all sorts of anxious thoughts revolving self doubt. One common one is the fear of not sounding stupid. The fact of the matter is, you are going to sound like a 3 year old at best any time you start to speak a foreign language, so this is unaviodable. Another fear would be the fear of offending or saything a wrong word that you didnt mean to say. This is also unavoidable, because many times this is exactly how we learn language even as kids. I remember the first time I heard the word “Fuck”. I was 6 years old, and I heard it on TV. I liked how it sounded, so I ran into the other room that my older brother and Dad were and yelled really loudly, “Fuck! Fuck!”
The only way to reduce this anxiety is to face it head on by having as many interactions and conversations in the foreign language as you can. With each one, you learn to deal with these feelings and focus more on communicating and trying to be understood, rather than seeking the approval of the other person. Some people are helpful, others aren’t. The key is to learn more and more with each interaction, and practice more and more so that you gain pattern recognition. So if someone asks you in Spanish, “Como te va hoy?” the first time, you are dumbfounded. So you go to Google translate, figure out what this means, “How is your day going?”, and respond accordingly next time.
This is only done by interacting in certain contexts as many times as possible. Language is hard, because you can be well versed in Spanish in a business context, but in philosophical discussions, you wouldn’t know how the hell to explain the difference between Stoicism and Libertinism.
So the only thing to do is to put your head forward and put in the reps.
Foreign Language Conversation Anxiety Reduction Formula:
Level of Anxiety in While Speaking a Foreign Language =
Anxiety Level at Onset of Language Learning/ Number of Conversations Had In Said Foreign Language
Putting in the Reps
I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but doing as many repetitions as possible in whatever communication you are looking to improve upon is the best way to reduce your anxiety.