Coping with Pre-Contest Nervousness

“Good for you, Frank. You have been in the speech contest arena for quite some time,” one of the contestants told me when we were at the holding area. “You no longer get nervous!”


I thought so too. I thought I no longer get nervous. I have been joining speech contests since I became a member of Toastmasters in 2009. So yeah, it’s been quite a while.

“If your idea of being nervous is that sensation you feel in your chest, then, yes, I don’t get nervous,” I told him. “But my manifestation of pre-competition nervousness is way more embarrassing than that.”

They call it butterflies in the stomach. I think that’s an understatement. Butterflies are too gentle. The creatures in my stomach are wilder than butterflies. I would picture it as tiny pterosaurs whirling inside my gut. Have you seen the Jurassic World movie? Those winged-dinosaurs are what come to mind.

Why embarassing? Hmmm… Sure you wanna know the graphic details?

Whenever someone reminds me of the contest, my stomach would growl as if something inside it is upset.

For some people, they get nervous during the contest.

Good for them. Their agony occurs just once.


I experience stomach upset days prior to the event. It occurs more than once in an unexpected time or place.

So, why does this stomach acrobatics happen?

Here’s what I found out.

1. It’s a primal instinct.

The whole experience is associated with the flight-or-fight response of our body. It’s the main reason our ancestors survive in the jungle during the jungle-ly days.

Have you seen the movie, Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle? Just in case you can’t imagine a real jungle because you’ve lived in a man-made metal jungle city… 🙂

When you meet a beast, your brain automatically perceives it as a potential threat. In that instant, your heart rate increases, your blood pressure goes up, and your breathing goes faster. The nervous system stimulates the adrenal glands, which release adrenaline and cortisol that can turn the body into a tense and sweaty fighter.

Oh, I learned that sweating is a good thing when you get nervous. It helps your body to cool down.

Translating that to the speech contest, my brain is probably telling me 2 things.

One, “Watch out! This is a life-threatening situation. Wanna fight? Or take a flight?”

Two, “Perhaps you should stop joining speech contests!”

2. Your stomach is your second brain.

According to an article published in the New York Times, our brain and gut function like Siamese twins.

When the brain is upset, the gut also gets upset.

When the gut is upset, the same thing happens to the brain.

It is because the brain and the stomach’s brain, called the enteric nervous system, have 100 million interlinking neurons….

While reading the article made my nose bleed, I realized that abdominal problems, like ulcers, hyperacidity, and butterflies are results of what is happening in the mind. 

Now, the phrase “everything starts in the mind” makes sense.

3. Passion.

The butterflies feeling when you get nervous is the same feeling you get when you’re excited to see someone you love.

Falling in love activates those pleasure centers of the brain which causes an immediate physiological response. The heart beats fast, your hands get cold and sweaty. Then your stomach goes on a rollercoaster ride.

Though this one sounds like a novel idea, the article, “Why falling in love gives you butterflies” provides an interesting take on the topic.

“Your limbic or emotional brain activates the vagus nerve that goes from the brain to your gut,” says Dr. Amen. “When you get nervous, or when you get excited, this nerve is stimulated that activates the gut.”

It’s as if your body is telling you “I’m stressed but I’m motivated to do something or see this person again.”

Translating that to the speech contest, my stomach brain is telling me “I care so much for the message of your speech. I am passionate about it. You need to do something. What about doing some practice?”

Why does getting nervous matter?

I feel nervous when I don’t feel nervous. Whenever I have a speaking engagement, I would look for that tiny winged dinosaur sensation in my gut. If I don’t feel it, I get worried.

Maybe this event doesn’t mean anything to me. Have I become too confident? Is this suicide?

Worrying is worse than getting nervous. It’s paralyzing. It gives power to whatever lurks in the dark corners of your being. I think we all have that. I don’t know what it’s called but it’s something that makes people give up. It’s the thought that tells you “I’ll just quit. This is a lost battle in the first place.” You quit before you even try!

According to Amy Cuddy, author of Presence and professor at Harvard Business School,  “…some nervousness can even signal passion to others… After all, you wouldn’t be nervous if it didn’t matter to you, and you can’t easily persuade an investor or potential client to buy into your idea if it’s not clear that you care deeply about whether or not it succeeds.”

So, next time you get nervous, befriend it!

How to befriend nervousness?

Treat your nervousness the way you would treat a whining little girl.

Look at her.

Listen to her.

Let her go.

I learned this from my daughter. She loves having my attention. I love it too. But there are times when I’m not in the playful mood. But of course, I can’t just tell her “don’t you have anything else to do, kid?” She’s just one year and she doesn’t have anything else to do.

Her whining is simply her way of telling me, “daddy, look at me. I’m cute.”

She smiles when I look back at her. Sometimes, she runs and wraps around my neck.

When my playfulness is on, I would raise her up and fly her around until she cries, “Down Daddy! Down!”

It’s as if telling me, “Now that I’ve got your attention, I know that I am important to you. But I don’t want you choking me with your attention. You can go back to what you’re doing now.”

When you get nervous, don’t ignore it. If you do, it will continue to bother you like a whining child.

Instead, take time to notice it. Listen to it. What is it all about? Maybe it’s telling you something. What is it that’s causing you to get nervous? Is there anything you can do about it? What part of it is within your control?

Enough preparation may help but it doesn’t guarantee zero nervousness. So, you don’t have to tame all the tiny winged dinosaurs in your stomach.

You don’t have to wait for the nervousness to disappear.

Just show up and deliver!

Interesting Read…

Being Nervous Can Make You More Successful 

Complex and Hidden Brain in Gut Makes Stomaches and Butterflies 

Enteric Dopaminergic Neurons 

Nervous Good Embrace Butterflies 

Why Do I Get Butterflies in My Stomach? 

Why Falling Love Gives You Butterflies? 

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