A psychologist's guide to managing your anxiety before, during, and even after a job interview
Courtesy of Sherry Benton
- Dr. Sherry Benton is the founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect, a digital platform designed to make behavioral health therapy more affordable, effective, and accessible. She is a professor emeritus and former counseling center director at the University of Florida.
- She says that our response to anxiety comes from our cave-dwelling days: Our bodies react like we're being hunted by a predator. In the case of job interview anxiety, the response comes from thinking your quality of life will hinge on your performance.
- Before an interview, figure out if you need to calm down or amp yourself up. During the interview, try and take deep breaths - and don't feel like you have to immediately start talking after a question.
- If you're still feeling anxious post-interview, try using some mindfulness exercises.
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Today's workforce is plagued with anxiety. In fact, 40 million adults in the US are affected by anxiety disorders. Work-related stressors can be a major trigger for many people, so it's no wonder that 73% of people consider changing careers to be one of the most stressful life events.
With a career change or new job comes the pressure to perform well in an interview. The stress and anxiety you encounter around job searching can have a detrimental impact on your interview performance - and, ultimately, your mental well-being. To control this anxiety, it's important to understand what causes it in the first place in order to manage the symptoms that creep up before, during, and even after the job interview.
What causes anxiety
The human brain is hard-wired to analyze danger and respond - a trait picked up from our cave-dwelling days. In today's world, this behavior does us more harm than good, as our brains have a hard time distinguishing between modern distressing thoughts and actual physical threats.
When anxiety strikes, the amygdala, a set of neurons in the brain that process emotions, and the limbic system are telling the body to react to the thought - for example, "I'm going to fail this interview" - the same way it would if someone was being hunted by a predator. Interview anxiety essentially stems from the thought that someone's quality of life hinges on their performance in an interview.
Before the interview
From a physiological perspective, arousal and anxiety are the same thing. Too much arousal will result in increased anxiousness, and your performance in the job interview will likely suffer because of it. On the same vein, if there's too little arousal, you could come off as disengaged or tired.
To enter the optimal mental state for peak performance, you need to analyze your thoughts, determine how you're feeling, and figure out what you need to do to get to a mental state of balanced arousal.
Essentially, do you need to calm yourself down or do you need to pump yourself up?
To lower arousal levels and calm down, reevaluate the nervous thoughts in your mind and change them. As counterproductive as it may seem, you sometimes need to argue with yourself to determine which thoughts are worth justifying. Thoughts like, "This interview is not a life or death situation" or, "My family and friends will still love me if I do not get the job" will counteract the negative thoughts, lower arousal levels, and calm down anxiety. To raise arousal levels and pump yourself up, focus on thoughts such as "I'm a great fit for this position" or "I'm prepared for this challenge."
If you feel that your anxiety is still at a point where it will hinder your performance, preparation is a critical step. First, research the company and try to take in as much information about them as possible. Then, take the time to think about the tough questions that you may be faced with and work on preparing responses. By practicing potential questions, you're familiarizing your brain with anticipated scenarios.
During the interview
When you're stressed, one of the first physical symptoms is an increased heart rate. An easy way to bring your heart rate down to a normal level is through breathing exercises. Taking slow, deep breaths will physically bring your heart rate back down, lower your stress levels, and make you feel relaxed.
During an interview, no one will notice if you need to take one discreet deep breath between answers, and it will help you appear more relaxed and confident when you go to answer your next question.
A common anxiety-driven mistake people make in job interviews is to immediately start talking once an interviewer asks a question; they'll start answering before they even know how they want to proceed. If you find yourself in a situation where you can't answer a question right away, it's okay to take a few seconds before answering - it's better than letting your nerves do the talking.
In addition to an increased heart rate, cold hands are another sign of stress and anxiety. When you take the time to catch your breath, you should also make an effort to warm your hands to help keep you grounded and focused.
Again, the amygdala and limbic system are just as reactive to what you tell yourself as they are to something physically happening right in front of you. Have those positive and calming statements ready to go while you're interviewing - "I am exactly what this company needs" or "My skills will help this company succeed."
When you can actively replace the anxious thoughts in your head with positive, calming thoughts, your positive thoughts will go beyond just your mind, demonstrating confidence and composure to the interviewers. Positive thinking, coupled with actively addressing the physical symptoms of stress, will make you noticeably calmer.
After the interview
Anxiety doesn't necessarily go away once the interview is over. It's extremely easy to overthink the interview and have negative thoughts that start to spiral. While these may go away if you get the job, they may worsen if you don't.
One proven method for reducing anxiety is engaging in mindfulness exercises. These exercises are designed to minimize the ongoing thoughts in your brain, decrease the adrenaline and cortisol pumping through your veins, and encourage your body's relaxation response to kick in.
Mindfulness is proven to help combat the negative effects of anxiety, especially when combined with cognitive behavioral strategies that modify thinking patterns. Things like imagining yourself getting positive results (visualization) or imagining how you would talk to your friend if they were in your situation are examples of behavioral strategies that can change your negative thinking.
Almost everyone has experienced some degree of job interview anxiety, and a certain degree of nervousness is completely normal and healthy. If the stress and anxiety start feeling debilitating, however, you can take control of your mental health through breathing exercises and thought modification, or even online therapy tools and in-person therapy.
Dr. Sherry Benton is the founder and chief science officer of TAO Connect, a digital platform designed to make behavioral health therapy more affordable, effective, and accessible. Dr. Benton is also a professor emeritus and the former counseling center director at the University of Florida. She has more than 25 years of clinical and research experience in counseling psychology and college student mental health and has focused her career on reducing mental health disparities and improving access to evidence-based mental health treatment.