Gina is going to a Career Fair. Several companies she is interested in working for will be at this event, and on her way there, she begins to feel nervous about talking to the company representatives. Her mind runs rampant with anxious thoughts:
What if I don’t make a good impression? What if I screw up my only chance to get my foot in the door? What if I say the wrong thing and they don’t like me?
By the time she arrives, her palms are sweating and her breathing is shaky. Seeing the tables for the companies she wants to talk to, she immediately wants to run home to her apartment and abandon the whole thing.
Gina’s experience is not uncommon. Many people go through social anxiety, especially in networking situations. Unfortunately, this can cause them to back away from important opportunities.
I find that one of the best ways to start dealing with anxiety is to unpack it: why am I feeling this way? What purpose does my anxiety serve? Emotions are, in their most basic sense, data about the outside world. Once I begin to understand the mechanism behind different feelings, it takes some of their power away, giving me more knowledge and control over my reactions.
So why do we feel anxious in social situations?
At our core, we humans are social creatures. We crave belonging and acceptance, and we are sensitive to rejection. In fact, research shows that our bodies respond to rejection the same way they do to physical injury. Our bodies release natural painkillers to soothe our emotional wounds just as they would the physical.
When we feel threatened, we experience a “fight-or-flight” response, preparing us to either fight or run for our lives. Our bodies operate by principles of self-preservation, motivating us to avoid or eliminate situations that could lead to pain or death. It makes sense that, if our bodies react similarly to emotional and physical pain, situations threatening the former would also prompt fight-or-flight.
While this response is extraordinarily helpful when we are in actual life-or-death situations, it can hinder us as we try to navigate everyday social situations, which are not actually dangerous. Social Anxiety Disorder affects 15 million adults in the U.S. Many of us who are not diagnosed with SAD still experience symptoms of social anxiety, particularly when we are in high-pressure, high-stakes situations with a power imbalance present.
How do we deal?
Clearly, we can’t avoid these situations forever and still get what we want. Here are some strategies we can use to deal with anxiety about networking so that it doesn’t hold us back:
#1 Acknowledge your anxiety as a valid emotion. You now know why your ancestors required a fear response to survive, so don’t beat yourself up for feeling this way.
#2 Practice putting yourself out of your comfort zone. The more you put yourself out there and survive, the more your body will learn that these are not life-or-death situations—even if the worst happens and you do get rejected. Although you may not get rid of all the anxiety, its intensity will certainly decrease, making these experiences more pleasant and manageable over time.
- Imagine you are the big boss and someone approaches you for a networking opportunity. How would you feel? Would you be annoyed and judge them on their every move? Or would you feel curious and happy to help? It turns out that many people are excited to talk about their experiences, and they often genuinely want to help you if they can. If they aren’t able to help or don’t have time, they will communicate this to you–and if you do come across someone who is genuinely rude, consider yourself lucky you didn’t go to work for them!
- Reframe your anxiety. This may be my favorite strategy, and I use it frequently. A lot of how we experience a situation has to do with how we perceive it. Many times, the physical reaction we have right before speaking in public is the same one we have before we go on a rollercoaster (for example), yet in one situation we might describe ourselves as nervous, while in the other we would identify excitement. Anxiety reappraisal operates based on the idea that both excitement and anxiety are high-arousal emotions. Trying to calm yourself down when you are anxious (or going from high to low arousal) takes a lot of effort and is often a losing battle. However, because excitement is physically very similar to anxiety, it can be much easier to move between these two emotions. The physical sensations are the same, but mentally we begin to focus on the positive instead of on the negative; we expect a good outcome rather than the worst. It’s incredible how powerful this can be!
Anxiety Reappraisal – Example
I often feel anxious before reaching out to someone who is established in my field for advice and to get my name out there. When thoughts creep in, like:
What if they don’t want to talk to me?
I purposefully change my thinking to something like:
I’m excited to talk to this person and hear their perspective.
It really does work–I feel much more confident and positive almost instantly, and I’m more likely to take advantage of networking opportunities with this more optimistic mindset.
Take a step back
As for Gina, she acknowledged her anxiety and headed to the restroom, where she took some time to just close her eyes and breathe deeply. Then, she reframed her outlook on the situation: I’m really excited to learn more about these companies and the field in general. It will be so interesting to talk to people who are doing what I want to do, and I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say and sharing ideas.
Within moments, Gina, while still full of adrenaline, was now amped up in a more positive way. She headed into the event with more confidence and genuine curiosity than she had thought possible.
Now, it’s your turn. Give it a try, and don’t let your anxiety stop you from going after what you want!