By Yvonne Milosevic
Do you often experience anxiety before giving a presentation or having an uncomfortable conversation? If so, this Stanford neurobiologist’s hacks to calm your speaking jitters could change your life. Andrew Huberman, an associate professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology, recently stopped by the GSB’s Think Fast, Talk Smart podcast to share his research-backed tips with host Matt Abrahams.
Today, we’re sharing two methods that Huberman says can reduce or eliminate your speaking jitters in real-time. But any science nerds in the house should head over to the pod to hear their entire conversation. You’ll walk away with a better understanding of the fascinating brain mechanisms that control anxiety and performance under stress.
Technique #1: The Double Inhale
You can do all the meditation, essential oils, and pinot noir you want to relieve general stress in your life. But none of it will help when you’re stepping onto the podium to speak before a crowd. Even those much-touted deep breathing exercises for anxiety aren’t going to cut it in this situation.
“When you’re stressed, you are breathing less deeply,” Huberman explains. “The most common advice is to take a deep breath. It turns out that’s exactly the wrong advice.”
If you feel your heart pounding and you need to calm down asap, the first thing to do is exhale and then try the double inhale, he says. Meaning, inhale through the nose and then sneak in a bit more air before doing a long exhale through your mouth.
“A lot of the stress response is due to elevated carbon dioxide in the bloodstream,” Huberman notes, which gets offloaded when you breathe out. “Exhale-emphasized breathing leads to much more rapid activation of the calming arm of the nervous system.”
Repeat this action two or three times, which takes less than 10 seconds, and you’ll feel an immediate stress reduction.
Technique #2: Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing, or EMDR
Developed in the late 1980s by psychologist Francine Shapiro, the EMDR technique treats and reduces emotional stress and/or trauma through lateral eye movement. Huberman thinks it works best for specific circumstances, and its benefits are well documented in studies on presentation anxiety.
EMDR works best for specific circumstances, like public speaking. It’s not great for reducing your stress about your entire childhood or your entire divorce, or your entire 2020.
“It looks a little goofy if you see someone do it,” he acknowledges. “But moving the eyes from side to side, not up or down, (…) actually triggers suppression of the amygdala, this fear center in the brain.”
Before a presentation or other stressful event, move your eyes from side to side for about 30 seconds, Huberman suggests. That movement produces a state of reduced alertness (aka stress), so that “you’re able to better approach things with more ease,” he adds.
Here’s something else to consider. Our physiological responses to anxiety and stress—butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat—are identical to those we experience when excited. Such reactions are 100% autonomic, which means they happen automatically. For that reason, some experts suggest we reframe those nervous feelings as excitement.
“Despite these responses being automatic, there are direct control points through which we can control the autonomic nervous system, meaning that we can dial down the level of alertness or increase the level of calmness,” Huberman says.
Cognitive reframing to get past those speaking jitters is solid advice. Unfortunately, it may not work every time. It’s tough to control the mind with the mind, he notes. “So, under conditions where your mind is not where you want it, use the body to control the mind.”