- Anxiety is always a challenge, and it may be heightened during times of uncertainty and rapid change.
- Anxious circumstances can make stress-inducing tasks like giving presentations or having difficult conversations even more stressful.
- Rituals can be used as a tool to create feelings of calm and control.
- Rituals can be empathy-, exertion-, spiritual-, or mantra-based, depending on what works for your personality and preferences.
We’ve heard again and again that anxiety levels are high, and the shift to remote work has only exacerbated the problem. Consider some scenarios: a manager who already finds giving presentations nerve-wracking now has to give them via video, adding a layer of technical difficulty and making it harder to connect with the audience; a leader has to give bad news or difficult feedback to an employee over the phone rather than in person; a businessperson whose children are now at home full-time is trying to interview for a new job with the noise of play in the background.
In the remote world, even just starting your workday in what may be a less-than-conducive work environment can be stress-inducing. Any of these scenarios would be stressful under normal circumstances; add some of the current complications to the mix, and for some they become downright daunting. How can we boost our confidence and re-claim our calm in these situations?
Science suggests that using rituals is a natural human propensity that we can consciously leverage to manage stressful situations, likely because they give us a sense of control and predictability when things feel overwhelming or scary. Although not a panacea, using rituals before stressful situations can boost confidence and calm.
What ritual you choose will depend on your personality and preferences, and there is no one-size-fits all ritual for everyone. Effective rituals can include things as different as performing vigorous jumping jacks, to sitting in stillness and breathing deeply.
The important feature seems to be that it is planned and predictable – so you do the jumping jacks or the deep breathing 10 minutes before your presentation, every time you present, for example. Again, it’s the sense of familiarity and predictability that seems to have the calming effect. An HBR report on this phenomenon suggests that there are four basic types of ritual you can try:
- Empathy-based rituals focus on connecting with others. Examples could include taking some time to speak with meeting or presentation attendees before your formal presentation (on a video conference, this could mean opening the call 5 or 10 minutes early for some informal chat) or visualizing things from the audience’s point of view (for example, before a difficult phone conversation, visualizing the other person’s perspective).
- Exertion rituals focus on moving your body and expelling some of the excess energy and tension that can build prior to a stressful conversation or event. A quick walk, jumping up and down, dancing around – anything that utilizes your body’s movement counts as an exertion ritual.
- Spiritual rituals can connect us with whatever it is that grounds us – our beliefs, values, or even just our connection to our breath. Prayer, meditation, and deep breathing can all be used as spiritual rituals.
- Mantra rituals involve repetition of a meaningful phrase or word – for example “I am present to this moment” or something as simple as “Breathe”. There is no magic to any set of words – the repetition itself seems to be what is soothing, and the words can give you a positive focal point to direct your energy towards
Whatever ritual you choose to try, it is not a replacement for other important steps – for example, practicing your presentation and being really familiar with its content, or preparing for your difficult conversation. However, a ritual can give us a sense of calm and control in difficult situations, enabling the hard work and preparation we’ve done to shine in its best light.