The sweaty hands, the racing heart, the knots in your stomach — and lets not forget the lightheadedness and blabbering. People report many physical symptoms of interview stress. Interview anxiety has become such an accepted phenomenon that there is almost an expectation that you will experience it. In fact, people who don’t experience interview anxiety often say they feel like freaks — like maybe something is wrong with them.
Long-term, chronic stress is undoubtedly unhealthy, and it can lead to hypertension, heart attacks, strokes, and weakened immune systems. Those who experience chronic stress need to put mechanisms in place to reduce it.
However, occasional, short-lived, situationally appropriate stress is not bad for you. Short-term stress is actually pretty good for you. In fact, our natural stress response is there to help us perform better and can be very beneficial in interview situations.
For many people, though, the heightened stress of interview leads them to believe that the situation will demand more from them than they are able to give. They fear they won’t be up to the task. This in itself is unhelpful thinking. Stress doesn’t mean you can’t do something, or that you will perform badly. The purpose of the stress response is to bring you to higher levels of alertness and performance. These are both things you want in an interview situation.
There are specific benefits to be had by harnessing your interview stress response. For example, when you experience short bursts of stress, you notice more in your environment, you learn more quickly, and you are more vigilant. In other words: Stress can help you interview better.
The problem is that many people stress about the stress. An alternative view is much more helpful, and I would like to encourage you to embrace interview stress as your friend. Research has shown that the way you think about stress changes the impact that it has on you. If you think that stress will be bad for you — hey, presto, it is. If you think that stress is beneficial — well, again, it is.
A great trick is to reframe your interview stress as something that is preparing you to perform at your peak. Stress is actually your body helping you perform at your best by making you more alert to the resources you have available to you.
People who are able to see stress as beneficial are also more able to overcome attentional bias, a mental phenomenon that undoes many people during interviews. An attentional bias is when we give undue attention to only a certain aspect of situation. How this plays out in interviews is we become super sensitive to the words and body language of the interviewer, and we interpret any small discrepancy in what they say or do as proof that we are not doing well in the interview.
For example, in a recent conversation I had with someone about their fear of interviews, she told me the story of her last interview. She just knew she was not doing well because a woman on the panel kept coughing into her handkerchief! I asked if she thought that the woman might have just had a cold, but her heightened attentional bias for negative information made the cough seem like a “secret signal” to the other panel members.
For those of you ready to embrace interview stress as your friend, here are some actions you can take:
- Watch a very engaging talk from Kelly McGonigal on “[h]ow to make stress your friend”.
- Give yourself regular short-term hits of stress-inducing experiences to build your stress response muscles. Especially beneficial are experiences where you have to present in front of others (e.g., speaking up at meetings, giving presentations to coworkers, talking to senior leaders in the workplace).
- Start a “courage challenge.” For three months, give yourself something to do each week that requires you be courageous. Get a friend to join you and keep you accountable.
The more you are able to reframe short-term stress as beneficial, the more control you gain over your attentional bias and the greater your ability to see not just the bad, but also the good.
A version of this article originally appeared on People Flourishing.