The ‘butterflies’ refers to the sensation that we get in our stomachs when we are nervous about something, or when we are in anticipation of something exciting. While they aren’t particularly uncomfortable or painful, they tend to also go hand-in-hand with other symptoms of the fight or flight response such as elevated heart rate, shakiness and racing thoughts.
Once upon a time this response was a healthy and natural response that helped us to deal with the various dangers that we encountered living in the wild. If you’re being chased by a tiger or if you’re surrounded by fire, then having an increased heart rate and tunnel vision was pretty useful to help you focus and escape. Unfortunately today the same response is ‘maladaptive’ and it causes us to end up fluffing out lines and generally getting into trouble whether it’s on a date or at an interview. I tried to tackle this particular problem myself on dates with alcohol when I was younger and it’s fair to say that that never really worked.
So the question is, how do you overcome that feeling of butterflies so that you can concentrate on what you’re supposed to be doing and improve your performance? Here we will look at some of the ways you can accomplish that and help to decrease the feeling so that you can focus.
Note: The precise scientific reason that we actually get the sensation of butterflies specifically is not fully understood by researchers, however it is suggested that it may be a result of epinephrine causing blood to be directed away from the stomach and toward the surrounding muscles.
The most conventional wisdom when it comes to combating butterflies is to try and calm yourself in order to bring your heart rate back under control, and to help yourself focus again. To do this many people will use meditation and other relaxation techniques in order to help control the breathing and create calm.
To do this try using visualization to imagine a peaceful scene and to distract yourself from the event that’s coming up. Meanwhile concentrate on keeping a slow and steady pace while breathing and try emptying your mind. While this will help to a degree however, you might find that it can be quite difficult to concentrate when your mind is already racing. Furthermore the effects are slow, and if you are forced to focus on the task at hand – cramming your notes for a speech for instance – then you don’t have the option to imagine yourself in a grassy field.
Cognitive restructuring may therefore be more effective. Here you aren’t attempting to manage the symptoms as with relaxation techniques, but are instead focussed on improving the actual cause for your anxiousness, which is not the stressor itself, but rather your perception of it.
Cognitive restructuring comes from cognitive behavioural therapy which teaches us to control our thoughts with positive affirmations etc. and to thereby alter our behaviour. A cognitive behavioural therapist might to this end suggest that you try reminding yourself that there is nothing to be gained from panicking, and that all you can do at this point is to focus and to try your hardest. Don’t fret about the situation, respond to it in the now.
Even more useful however is to try and combat your fear of the situation. Say you’re giving a speech for instance – simply ask yourself what the worst case scenario will be. Obviously the answer is that you choke and ‘make a fool of yourself’ – but in reality as long as you make a joke of it then it shouldn’t really matter, and if anything the experience will make you better at public speaking in future. On a date, so what if it doesn’t go well? Chances are it wasn’t meant to be then and there are other fish in the sea. Be willing to fail and suddenly you’ll find you won’t.
Ride the Wave
Even more effective still however is not to try and ‘combat’ the butterflies however, but rather to use them as they were intended – to spur you on. If you find yourself feeling that ‘fight or flight’ response then simply make sure that you go into ‘fight’ mode instead of flight. You can do this by using some rock music to psych yourself up, by being willing to stare danger in the face and by looking at the event as a challenge. Suddenly this rush can become an asset rather than a weakness.