Brains Trust: Why sweaty palms aren’t your enemy

Brains Trust: Why sweaty palms aren’t your enemy

Heart palpitations. Sweaty palms. Fidgety hands.

They’re what happen when most people think of public speaking. Usually, these physical reactions are read as a bad omen.

But the physical signs of nervousness aren’t your enemy. And knowing that could stop you getting even more stressed, according to a study published on Monday in the journal, Clinical Psychological Science.

“The problem is that we think all stress is bad,” explains Jeremy Jamieson, the lead author on the study and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “We see headlines about ‘killer stress’ and talk about being ‘stressed out’.”

“But those feelings just mean our body is preparing to address a demanding situation. The body is marshalling resources, pumping more blood to our major muscle groups and delivering more oxygen to our brains.”

And that can’t hurt when you have to think quickly on your feet.

Jamieson, along with co-authors Matthew Nock of Harvard University and Wendy Berry Mendes of the University of California in San Francisco, wanted to find out if knowing this helped people control their nerves.

To test this, they asked 69 adults to give a five-minute talk about their strengths and weaknesses, with only three minutes to prepare. Many of them had a history of social anxiety. They divided the 69 into two roughly equal groups.

The first group was asked to read psychological studies that showed the benefits of stress. The second group didn’t receive any information. Both groups then delivered their speech to two judges, who spent the speech shaking their heads in disapproval and tapping on their clipboards. If anyone ran out of things to say, the judges insisted the keep speaking for the full five minutes.

After the speech, the participants were then asked to count backwards for five minutes in steps of seven, beginning at the number 996. All the while, the judges continued to look disapprovingly at them.

Faced with this onslaught, the participants who’d been reading about how physical signs of stress can help them prepare did better than the group left to their own devices. The first group reported feeling they had more resource to cope with the task, and their psychological responses backed this up. The prepped group pumped more blood through their body per minute than the other group.

So next time your hands get sweaty, relax. It’s just your body preparing for the onslaught.


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