If your strategy for calming down before a job interview or big presentation is to pace up and down, muttering, "You got this!" until you almost, sort of believe it, then we've got good news.
There's a simpler and more effective way to beat anxiety. The trick? Remind yourself of what you value most.
In her new book "Presence," Amy Cuddy, the Harvard psychologist who popularized the idea of "power posing" to increase confidence, offers a simple exercise to get over your nerves. Take a few moments to write about a core value that's meaningful to you — e.g., family, creativity, career success — and a time when that value was important.
The exercise might seem unrelated to the task at hand, but hopefully it will help you remember what you as a unique individual have to bring to the table.
A growing body of researchsupports the idea that reflecting on your personal values — what researchers call "self-affirmation" — can help you deal with challenging situations.
In one study on self-affirmation, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of California at Santa Barbara asked 85 undergrads to give a five-minute speech about why they would be a good candidate for a job at their university.
The experience was designed to be extremely stressful — after giving the speech, participants counted aloud backward from 2,083 by 13 seconds while experimenters yelled at them to "go faster."
At the study's outset, all participants completed a questionnaire that asked them to rank the importance of five personal values: religion, social issues, politics, theory, and aesthetics. Half the participants answered questions about their top-ranked value; the other half answered questions about their lowest-ranked value.
Results showed that participants who'd self-affirmed by writing about their most important value reported significantly less stress while preparing for the speech. Researchers also measured their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and found that the participants who'd self-affirmed showed no significant spikes.
In other words, simply reflecting on who you are and what you care about may be enough to buffer the effects of a highly stressful experience.
In "Presence," Cuddy says self-affirmation facilitates the development of "presence" — which she defines as being attuned and able to express your true potential — by allowing you to become "your authentic self" and "your boldest self."
It's not, she says, about believing that you're the best at this role or developing a false sense of confidence. Instead, it's about knowing that you're able to do the best you can and demonstrate your personal strengths and talents.
She says that self-affirmation is "a way of grounding ourselves in the truth of our own stories. It makes us feel less dependent on the approval of others and even comfortable with their disapproval, if that's what we get."