Have you heard of this trick to reduce anxiety before doing something important?

Have you heard of this trick to reduce anxiety before doing something important?
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Written and verified by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 28 July, 2022

Some situations exacerbate our anxiety and really test our ability to control it. Think about job interviews, big presentations, exams, or the first day of anything new. Almost all of us need an extra dose of confidence in situations like those, and sometimes we can’t find it.

For some, these situations are just give them a bit of extra tension, and they handle it with relative ease. For others, it throws them off balance and it’s really hard to recover.

Some see these episodes as stressful bordering on traumatic. The truth is that almost everybody has nerves before important moments.

Some degree of fear is inevitable when we’re facing an important situation. However, there is a trick, or rather a method, that can help us keep anxiety from getting the best of us. 

It was designed by experts from Harvard University and is tried and true. Here we will tell you what it is.

An anxiety control test

This method was devised by psychologists from the Harvard Business School. They designed it based on studies done on these temporary crises. According to their findings, what we should do in these cases is a ritual, a sequence of actions with great symbolic value

a woman breathing

Experts have shown that when a person creates and then carries out a ritual to help them deal with anxiety, it generally works very well. 

To verify their theory, they did an interesting experiment. They needed a group of people that were very nervous. So they told the group they would have to sing a difficult song in front of a large audience, in just a few minutes.

They observed that many of the participants had a kind of ritual that they did. The majority of them said out loud: “Calm down” or “It’s not that bad”, or the classic “You can do it”. 

They did it with the intention of reducing the anxiety that they felt. However, these actions did not appear to be very effective.

The researchers selected some people from that group, and used a different strategy. They asked this group to make a drawing that showed how they felt in that moment. Then, they had them rip it apart and throw it in the trash. Those who did this simple exercise were able to better manage their anxiety.

Controlling anxiety in difficult moments

Psychologists say that reminding yourself that you need to be calm is not actually the best way to stay calm. They indicate that it’s as ineffective as telling someone who’s out of their mind to calm down.

Sometimes what we end up doing the opposite: irritating the person even more. The same thing happens with our own anxiety. You tell yourself to “calm down”, but you only get more nervous, because on top of that you have to deal with your frustration.

a girl studying with a lot of thoughts in her head

What anxiety before important events causes is really an anticipation of losing control. Not knowing what will happen, nor knowing how to control the variables that may lead to negative results.

That’s why an automatic ritual, like what the study suggested, helps us stop anticipating losing control over what is to come. And if the sequence of actions you take has special meaning to you, it will be even more effective.

Create a ritual

In conclusion, creating and doing a ritual before a stressful situation can reduce anxiety. Now, it is only a ritual if it is always done in the same way.

 Singers sometimes simply warm up their throat before a show. Football players sometimes touch the grass on the field, cross themselves, or run onto the field in a particular way. Some television hosts drink tea or sleep five minutes before going live.

Here are some examples of effective rituals. Do a series of breathing exercises while remembering times when you were strong or looking at photos of people who inspire us, even be a photo of yourself in a different time of your life.

If it’s your own photo, it’s best if that photo reminds you of a moment similar to the one you are about to go through. You probably have gone through similar challenges where you didn’t have total control, but were still able to work it out. It’s also a good idea to write down your biggest fear on paper, chew it up, then spit it out.

None of this is magic. These types of rituals are simply meant to build your conscious and unconscious strengths. No matter how you do it, make your own symbolic ritual. Even if it seems crazy, it’s a great way to stop your anxiety and the negative thoughts that feed it.

crumpled paper leading to an idea

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.