The Cure for Feeling Nervous Lives in Your Head

Churchhill Downs

The other day, I shared with my mother how ‘nervous’ I felt before a recent high-stakes presentation. She was genuinely surprised to hear this and remarked, “YOU? Nervous? The Confidence Lady?” I laughed and replied, “I ALWAYS get nervous. That’s how I know I’m ready.” And it’s true. “If I weren’t nervous,” I said, “I’d be worried!”

That conversation lingered in my brain. It got me thinking about the word ‘nervous’ and wondering if ‘nervous’ was the right word to describe how I was feeling after all. I experience a similar energy surge before most performances, but to me, ‘nervous’ implies fear or self-doubt. I definitely don’t feel either of those. What I do feel can be uncomfortable, even somewhat annoying, but I know I need it. I know it will help me do my best work. “Maybe I need a new word!” I thought. Now I’m on a quest to find it.

Finding a new word for ‘nervous’ got me thinking about racehorses.

A couple of years ago, I visited some of my dad’s relatives in Louisville, Kentucky. My Aunt and cousins took me to Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby. As toured the grounds, meandered through the museum, then experienced a 360-degree immersive video in their one-of-a-kind theater, I felt the intense energy of those Thoroughbreds before a race.

If you’ve ever been around a group of horses before a race, you know this. But if you haven’t, let me say, their energy is electric. You can FEEL their excitement. And it’s thrilling. Maybe even a little scary. However, I would not describe their energy as nervousness. I’d call it anticipation or excitement. Perhaps ‘charged and ready to go.’ In my mind, the word ‘nervous’ implies one is feeling fear, doubt, maybe uncertainty. These horses are anything but afraid. They are ready. And when the bell rings, they will run like the wind. Like it’s their last race ever.

‘Running like their last race ever’ got me thinking of a card I keep tucked into the back of my phone.

It’s a card I received at a conference I attended on my way to Kentucky. A card from fellow speaker, comrade, and exceptional trainer Darren LaCroix.Darren provides a ‘Connect Card‘ to members of his Stage Time University, a highly successful presentation mastery program. There are four questions printed on the back of the card focused on intent, attitude, readiness, and state of mind. The last of the four questions is “How would you give this presentation if it were your last presentation ever?” Great question, right? I’ve reviewed these four questions before nearly every presentation I’ve given since receiving this card. Giving my presentation as if it were my last helps me channel my energy in the right direction: Outward.

Channeling my energy got me thinking about my high school years when I ran track.

(Hang with me, I know this is a bit of a spider web.) My nerves got the best of me at the track meets because I channeled my energy in the wrong direction: Inward. I felt so much anxiety I could barely pull myself away from the bathrooms. My stomach felt like it would drop out of me at any second. Once, the night before a big race, I broke out in hives! After earning my school ‘Letter’ and nearly making it to State my Junior year, I realized I couldn’t stand the pressure and dropped out. I still recall my coaches’ immense disappointment when, in my senior year, I told them I would not be rejoining the team. I was too embarrassed to tell them the real reason why. By their stunned reactions, I knew I had disappointed them. But that was easier than dealing with my nerves.

Today I still experience bodily reactions that remind me of those I felt in high school. But my mind no longer believes these are feelings to be embarrassed by or avoid. Instead, I like to think of myself as a Thoroughbred waiting for the gate to open. I speak out loud to myself like a jockey might speak to a horse, “You’re born for this!” “You are ready!” I’m excited. I’m FULL of anticipation and ready to give my audience something extraordinary! I’m grateful for the energy because it’s a signal to me that I care. It’s energy I channel to and share with my audience.

In light of all this, I’ve decided I’ll find a replacement for the word ‘nervous’ when referring to myself in this context. Perhaps ‘excited,’ energized,’ or ‘charged up’ would be better descriptors. I wonder what ideas you might have? What words do you use to describe how you feel before doing something daring? How do you describe your energy state at the gate of bold brilliance?

About the author

Rebecca's passion comes from helping others craft and deliver their very best authentic, powerful message. She is known for making learning fun and helping her clients achieve their goals in speaking and communicating. As a speaker herself, she is known for 'bringing it all' to her audience through humor, song, and sometimes a little dance. The stage is her playground. She'll go to almost any length to make learning fun and memorable.