Part of the reason people fear public speaking so much is that many of us feel at the mercy of our nerves. Will my hands shake? My body pour sweat? My brain turn to Jell-O just when I need it most? Stepping onto a stage or facing any other high-stakes challenge can feel like rolling the dice with whether your brain will betray you with out-of-control stress.
But it doesn't have to, according to Stanford neuroscientist Andrew Huberman. In a recent appearance on Stanford's Think Fast, Talk Smart podcast Huberman explained how to use simple physical actions to hack your brain and take back control of your nerves so you can perform at your best.
Your brain controls your body, but your body also controls your brain.
Before you can use these hacks, however, you have to know a little bit about how stress works. In everyday life, fear and excitement are two very different emotions. But to our bodies they're identical. Whether you're waiting to get into a concert or on stage before a big speech, your brain automatically prepares you for whatever action is to come by dialing up activation of your autonomic nervous system.
That means your heart pounds, your hands shake, and you feel jittery and sweaty. Whether you interpret these sensations as excitement for your favorite band or pre-presentation terror is entirely in your mind.
A hefty body of research suggests simply understanding this fact can help you get a handle on your stress, but Huberman goes a step further. While stress changes your body, changing your body can also change your level of stress. Our initial agitation is automatic, but consciously controlling your body and breath can dial down your physical response and help you perform at your peak.
1. Step forward
The first of these levers to control your nerves is so dead simple it's hard to believe it's effective, but Huberman insists that simply deciding to step toward whatever is causing your anxiety, paradoxically, helps tamp down that anxiety.
"There are only three responses we can have to any circumstance. One is to stay still, one is to move forward, and one is to move back," Huberman explains. Choosing to move forward, toward something you want but which triggers anxiety, causes your brain to release a shot of the reward chemical dopamine.
Striding toward your audience, for instance, doesn't just cause them to see you as confident, but is also read as pleasurable and rewarding by the brain, which teaches your body to better handle similar situations over the long-term.
One "very interesting function of dopamine is to increase the probability that we will move toward similar types of goals in the future," Huberman says. "It's the molecule of motivation and drive. ... And that forward movement, provided it's adaptive toward a goal, triggers the activation of chemicals in the brain and body that will make the subsequent pursuit of those same or similar goals more likely and more pleasurable."
2. Try EMDR
EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization reprocessing, which is a technique developed back in the 1980s to help people recovering from severe trauma. The idea is that moving your eyes side to side for around 30 seconds somehow tamps down fear and anxiety in the brain. Huberman used to think it was hogwash. Turns out he was wrong.
"A couple of years ago, there were no fewer than five papers published in very high-quality journals ... showing that these laterized eye movements lead to suppression of this fear center in the brain. So it's a quite long lasting effect," he reports.
The technique is most effective at addressing specific stressors -- "it worked best for specific circumstances, like public speaking. It's not great for sort of reducing your stress about your entire childhood," Huberman says -- and if you're using it to process serious trauma, you should do so under the care of a professional. But those caveats aside, Huberman feels the technique is a solid way to calm your nerves immediately before a big event (just be aware you look odd to others while doing it).
3. Double inhale
We've all been told to take a deep breath to calm our nerves. Those giving that advice are correct that your breathing can have a massive impact on your stress levels. They are generally wrong about the specific technique they recommend, according to Huberman.
Don't just take a long inhale followed by a long exhale. Instead, "do a double inhale," Huberman instructs. "So inhale through the nose. And then before you exhale, sneak in a little bit more air and then do a long exhale. And you do this just one to three times. ... Ideally the inhales are done through the nose and then exhale through the mouth."
For those who are interested, the podcast includes a long explanation of why this works involving carbon dioxide and lung anatomy, but for those simply looking to rock their next big speech, all you need to know is that science shows two inhales are far more effective than one.