How to keep calm and perform at your best, when you’re feeling scared


Inevitably at some point as a coach and in your life, there are things that you’ll want and need to do that scare you...

  • Giving feedback to your client
  • Putting your hand up to speak at a networking event
  • Pitching that crazy big goal to your spouse
  • Firing a difficult client
  • Saying no to your in-laws
  • Putting down that 5th Tim Tam because you have had 4 too many already...

If you are already feeling a little scared by the things you have taken on, then to you I say congratulations! This is a healthy sign that you are growing, bravely stepping outside of your comfort zone and taking on new challenges and responsibilities. The world’s greatest developments wouldn’t exist if it weren't for people like you, willing to do things like this.

And at the same time, let’s face it, unless you're an adrenaline junkie, it sucks to be scared. Fear and nervousness either halts us from doing the very things we know to be good for us, or makes us tense, sweaty and handicapped whilst we are attempting them.

The Problem

In fact what we know from neuro-science is that when your limbic system (the part of the brain responsible for emotions and the fight or flight response) gets overly activated:

  • It reduces the resources available for your prefrontal cortex (the smart, rational part of your brain). In essence, you become less intelligent. 
  • You become more likely to respond negatively to situations. Once activated by a sense of danger, the amygdala (fight or flight part of your brain) is primed to look out for more danger. This makes you look at the downside and take fewer risks.
  • The amygdala is more likely to make “accidental connections", misinterpreting incoming data. For example, your coworker is frowning deep in thought, but you interpret the frown as a personal reaction to you.

One study, involved two groups of students completing the same paper maze, starting as a mouse in the middle of the page. One group had a picture of cheese - a reward, at the edge of the maze; the other had an owl - potential punishment. The groups then completed creativity tests. The group heading toward the cheese could solve around 50 percent more problems.

So wait, now I have to be scared and dumb?!

Not at all! Here are 5 science backed ways of regulating your emotions, so that:

  • You can calm your nervous system,
  • Improve your performance, and; 
  • Be able to bravely do the scary things that help us all grow, improve and succeed together. 

1. Don't try to force your feelings down

James Gross, Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, conducted research
showing that one of the most ineffective ways people try to manage their emotions is by suppressing them. This involves trying to hold your feelings down and stop them being perceived by others.

Gross set up lab experiments where people would watch emotion-inducing videos, some quite graphic and upsetting. He would then get people to try different emotion-regulation techniques and evaluate the effects on the participants’ emotional state.

There are several surprising and important findings to this work. Gross found that people who tried to suppress a negative emotional experience would fail to do so - while they thought they looked fine outwardly, inwardly their limbic system was just as activated as without suppression, and in some cases, even more activated. This is because trying to suppress the expression of an emotion takes a lot of mental resources, which leaves fewer resources for paying attention to the moment.

2. Label your emotions in just a few words

Research conducted by Matthew Lieberman, at UCLA Department of Psychology, found that one simple and effective way to reduce the fight or flight) activation response is to describe the emotion you are experiencing in a few simple words.  Doing so requires you to activate the rational part of your brain, reducing the resources available for the fight or flight response, lowering its activation.

In a 2005 study, Lieberman asked thirty participants to view pictures of angry, scared or happy looking faces. Half the time the participants tried to match the target face to another picture of a face with a similar expression. The other half of the time, they tried to match the target face to a word that matched the emotional expression. FMRI scans showed that when the participants labeled the emotional faces using words, less activation occurred in the fight or flight response system. 

3. Breathe deep for 3 seconds in and 3 seconds out

Research in human neuro-science has shown that when a person is under stress, their breathing pattern changes. Typically, when a person feels scared or anxious they take small, shallow breaths. This style of breathing activates the fight or flight response and prolongs feelings of anxiety by making stress symptoms worse.

Deep controlled breathing on the other hand, like counting for 3 seconds in and 3 seconds out, whilst paying attention to your breath - lowers your blood pressure and lower heart rate, reduces the levels of stress hormones in the blood and promotes a state of calmness.

4. Find your power pose


In 2012, Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy gave a now famous TED Talk on the benefits of "power-posing", or changing your body language in ways that can make you feel more confident.

The evidence of power posing came from a study that Cuddy completed, where participants sat in either a high-power pose (expansive posture) or low-power pose (leaning inward, legs crossed) for two minutes. Cuddy’s research had two major findings

  1. People who sat in high-power positions felt more powerful than their low-power pose counterparts.  
  2. Power posing actually changed their body chemistry. Cuddy’s study suggested that those who adopted high-power poses demonstrated an increase in testosterone and a decrease in cortisol.  


5. Focus on the solution, not the problem

Pro Tip - Consciously focus your attention on how to get to your goal (solutions) not what you want to avoid (problems).

Your brain can’t look for solutions and problems at the same time. That would be like trying to hold two numbers in mind at once, and trying both to add them up and to multiply them at the same time. 

And so the decision to focus on solutions to achieve your goal, instead of potential problems impacts brain functioning in several ways. 

First, when you focus on your goal, you prime your brain to look for information relevant to that goal (find a taxi), rather than to notice information about the problem (not getting to the airport). This increases your chance of achieving your goal quicker.

econd, when you focus on problems, you are more likely to activate the left hemisphere of your brain - the emotions connected with those problems. This creates greater noise in the brain, making it more difficult for you to focus and achieve your goals. 

In contrast, when you look for solutions, you actually activate more of the right hemisphere of the brain. Activating the right hemisphere is helpful for having insights and how complex problems are often solved. 


Doing scary things in life is often not only necessary, but also an important way for us to develop and grow as human beings.

And although being scared - often sucks, we don’t have to let it stop us or handicap us from doing these important things that we need and want to do.

Using these 5 ways we can learn to calm ourselves down, perform better and take more brave action to help us grow, improve and succeed in our lives.

Which of these 5 ways will you try? Let us know in the comments below.

Partly adapted from Your Brain at Work by David Rock. 


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