Whether we are going for a job interview, bungee jumping, or even just starting a conversation with a stranger, our bodies can get ridiculous and the once cool and relaxed human being we were is now wide-eyed and red face, and starting to get a sweat up – stress, tension, and anxiety. So why does this happen, and why can’t we just cut it out? Put simply, it is a protective mechanism that is hardwired in our make-up which has become mutated over time. We’ll get to the rant after the science…
Historically, nervousness or “butterflies” were a warning indicator of potential danger in any given scenario. The fear of death (or at least fear of significant inconvenience) triggered this response and accordingly would heighten the senses in order to run, think, or protect oneself at a higher level in order to survive (the “fight” or “flight” response). The evolutionary purpose was to provide early humans with a function that could trigger an immediate life-saving decision process. For example, Johnny Caveman steps out of his cave and heads down to the stream to fetch some water. Along his journey he encounters a sabre-toothed tiger. Knowing that he doesn’t have time to write out a list of pro’s and con’s of what to do next, Johnny Caveman’s body triggers the fight or flight response and he quickly makes a decision by processing the conditions he is faced with and his general situation in a split second. If there were 12 tigers, he’d run (probably). But as there is only one tiger, and considering his family hasn’t eaten for two days, he decides to “fight”. The stress and tension that his body has triggered offers further benefits such as a short burst of increased energy and greater resistance to pain. Fundamentally, this was the purpose for having a built-in security system during a period where surviving was difficult.
Mutant stress (featuring the rant part)
These days, running into a sabre-toothed tiger on your way to the shops is much less likely. In fact, the likelihood of encountering any trouble at all is slim (depending on where you live and assuming you aren’t poking everyone you see with a stick.) There are threats, but for most of us, they are infrequent and certainly not cause for significant concern. But yet we still encounter these threat responses despite not actually being faced with life-threatening scenarios. But why?
Over the course of time, for some of us, our self-esteem has become more fragile and more exposed to damage from any number of sources. Our self-esteem fundamentally manages how positive we are about our lives and ourselves and taking a self-esteem hit can be just as brutal as a physical blow. With this in mind, our fight or flight response, or stress levels and nervousness, are now prone to psychological threats as well as the physical. For example, we may become tense and stressed in any scenario that could lead to:
- Disappointment – not reaching the expectations we had set for ourselves, for example, not doing as well in a sporting event as we had expected.
- Failure – not succeeding where we expected to, for example, not getting a job we applied for.
- External judgement – not being perceived the way we would like, or not meeting the expectations of others, for example, a public performance be it social or professional.
- The unknown – generally having no idea what comes next, for example, a blind date or even visiting a new restaurant for the first time.
As a human-being it is frustrating to know that we are susceptible to such trivial matters, but it is not completely our fault. Our beloved cave-people ancestors only had a few things to concern themselves with – is something trying to kill me, and do we have enough food to not die. There wasn’t time to worry about haircuts and sporting performance or what the next-cave neighbour thought of them.
Apart from human-to-human engagements (actual conversations, socialising etc), everything we see, do, or consume sets an unrealistic prejudice for what is the common social standard. Pick up a flyer in the mail, turn on the TV, or visit a website – the images you see, how people look, and how they behave has been modified and manipulated to create a false standard which is repeated so frequently that the rest of us eventually accept that this is “common”. Even one of the worlds most successful athletes recently had a photo of herself doctored because her PR team thought she looked too heavy.
Everything that can be promoted or constitutes newsworthiness revolves around abnormal success, unnatural beauty, or some association to fame. Being our regular non-newsworthy selves is not interesting and for a lot of us, this adds additional pressure to perform or do well when the opportunity presents itself. If we aren’t winning everything, dominating all scenarios, or aren’t highly regarded by everyone around us, we are sub-standard. Failing to maintain this has an impact on our self-esteem and consequently we are faced with unnecessary anxiety and stress levels emanating from what should be a completely non-stressful situation.
What can we do?
There are numerous articles suggesting that visualisation and meditation can counteract nervousness, but it is also worth noting that stress and tension (in rational quantities) can be beneficial. One of the by-products of the fight or flight response is a burst of adrenaline which is intended to give us a burst of speed (so we can run away from sabre-toothed tigers), strength (to defeat sabre-toothed-tigers), or smarts (to play dead so that sabre-toothed tigers leaves us a lone) to overcome the scenario we are faced with. If you do struggle with rational levels of nervousness or tension and haven’t discovered a method for managing it, perhaps try accepting it and using it in your favour. You may not be able to overcome it, but you may be able to channel it in a way that brings the best out in yourself.
*Our references to stress, tension, and anxiety are referring to common, manageable experiences. We certainly do not intend to trivialise or underestimate the effect that excess stress, tension, or anxiety can have on one’s health.