Out-think the Butterflies

Oli Gibson
Oli Gibson
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We're all familiar with the butterflies. That swooping sensation in your stomach that you feel when you’re worried about something. It's just one of the many natural bodily responses that occur when we're nervous, but what would happen if we could train our brains to recognise these feelings differently? Could we reframe the physical sensations we feel?

Well, emotional reappraisal can take many forms, but I have found the most effective way for me is to look back at past events which have caused me to feel nervous and ask myself questions from three different perspectives:

Positive - What was the best that could have happened?
Negative - What was the worst that could have happened?
Reality - What actually happened?

I've found that the outcomes at the extreme ends of the spectrum almost never occur. It's extremely unlikely you will ruin your career though your first public speech and it's equally unlikely it will send your career on a stratospheric rise. Normally the reality is much more balanced, however, our brain has an annoying habit of tricking us to believe that the most likely outcome is one of the more extreme, especially when we are outside our comfort zone.

Reflecting upon past events, experiences, or challenges, can strengthen your emotional reappraisal ability. To begin with it can be challenging, but with practice you may find yourself looking at these past events differently and finding the way you look at future events changing as well.

I have been practicing emotional reappraisal for pre-event nerves for over fifteen years and it's still a continual practice. Without regular training your ability to reframe the physical sensation of nervousness will degrade. When I was an athlete I became pretty good at reframing the feeling of nervousness into the excitement of performing, but once I stopped competing I had to work harder to find the opportunity to train my brain. If you want to conquer the fear, you need to regularly put yourself in situations that allow you to train.

Finally, I'd like to leave you with a thought. Whenever you try to achieve anything where 'success' is not an inevitable outcome your amygdala will use all kinds of tricks to try to keep you safe. You can't prevent this, nor should you, but you do have the power to reframe these signals as a sign you are on the cusp of an experience that may be new, exciting or educational. One that will enrich your life and may help you achieve what you dreamed.

In time you may even begin to crave the feeling of butterflies rather than fear their impending arrival....