Dealing with nerves

There may be situations during both your study and your career planning that can make you feel a bit nervous or stressed. You will be facing many new experiences and changes as well as thinking about your future after university.

What makes us nervous?

Nerves are often caused by a fear of the unknown, failure or worrying how a situation will turn out. 

There are all sorts of circumstances that make people nervous and these are different for everyone. Sometimes people can feel really confident in one situation but extremely nervous in another. For example, actors may appear calm and confident on screen, where they are comfortable and used to performing, yet appear nervous in interviews or on stage.

Some of the most common situations which make people feel nervous are:

  • Exams
  • Presentations
  • Interviews
  • Starting new jobs
  • Networking
  • Participation in seminars
  • Social situations (such as talking to strangers at a party)
  • Dealing with official organisations or people of authority

What happens when we are nervous?

When we are nervous, physical changes can occur in our body due to the “flight or fight” response. This is our body’s primitive response to a perceived threat to our survival to “fight” or “flee”.

Although in modern times, the triggers of this response are unlikely to be life threatening, our bodies are still hard-wired to react the same way. The chemicals and excess energy released from this reaction cause a number of changes in the body, such as increased blood flow and energy to the limbs, increased respiratory rate and increased awareness. It is these changes that are responsible for many of the symptoms that we experience when we are nervous.   

Symptoms of nerves

Nerves can affect everybody differently but some common symptoms include:

  • Sweating
  • Dry Mouth
  • Shaking/trembling
  • Butterflies
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Stammering/shaky voice
  • Feeling sick
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dizziness
  • Shallow breathing
  • Biting nails/ fiddling
  • Defensive body language (such as crossed arms and legs)

When can nerves be useful?

A certain amount of controlled nerves can actually be helpful, sharpening your focus and improving your performance through increased energy and enthusiasm.

In situations like interviews, the panel will expect to see a certain amount of nerves. It shows that you are eager to succeed and that the job is really important to you. It is also often the case that your nerves are not as obvious to everyone else as you think.

Too many uncontrolled nerves however, can be detrimental, negatively affecting performance. In the worst cases, people may begin to avoid any situations which might make them feel nervous, preventing them from taking part in certain activities. This can affect lifestyle and career progression. It is often important to face up to situations that make us nervous, in order for us to progress. If you do feel nervous about something, you will feel even more of a sense of achievement when you have succeeded and overcome it. You will also feel less nervous next time you face a similar challenge, and even less so the next time.

Nerves are normal

Although it is impossible to completely get rid of your nerves, there are ways of controlling nerves and their symptoms, so that they don’t take over your life and stop you from doing the things you want and achieving your goals. Our Dealing with Nerves (PDF - 184k - opens in new window) handout includes some ideas and techniques which may help in controlling your nerves.

The most important thing to remember is that nerves are normal. Everybody feels nervous at times, even the most experienced, seemingly most confident people; they have just learnt to handle their nerves and use them to their advantage.

Controlling nerves


One of the most important ways to control nerves, particularly for exams, presentations or interviews is by being prepared. If you are well prepared, you will feel in control of the situation, making you more confident and much more likely to be successful.

For interviews, ensure you have planned your day well in advance. You should have thought about the type of questions you might be asked and your responses, you should have researched the company, planned what you will be wearing, as well as making travel and parking arrangements

For further advice on preparing for interviews see our interviews guide (PDF - 106k - opens in new window).

Other Techniques

There are many other techniques that people use to deal with their nerves. Everyone has their own ways of controlling them and different things work for different people.

These often focus on relaxation, in order to calm nerves as well as increasing confidence. Examples include breathing techniques, positive self talk, controlled body language and exercise.

Our Dealing with Nerves (PDF - 184k - opens in new window) handout includes a range of techniques to give you some ideas on ways to relax, as well as boosting confidence. It includes some of the more well known techniques which you may have tried before or be aware of, as well as some that may be new to you. Try them out and see what works for you!