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Written by Paul DruryPaul Drury

An anxious person’s guide to interviews

12 min read
An anxious person’s guide to interviews
Artwork by:Katya Simacheva
Everyone experiences anxiety before and during an interview. That is entirely normal. The outcome simply matters too much. Having said that, if you are prone to excessive levels of anxiety at critical moments, this blog may suggest some ways to lessen the impact.

Our body’s natural response to anxiety is to either prepare to run or to fight.  

Neither would be the optimal response in a stressful interview. When your career is on the line, an attitude of calm positivity will enable you to perform at your best.

That is easier said than done. Many of us haven’t felt calm positivity for a while now. We live in a world where mental health challenges lurk around every corner. When levels of anxiety spike on a regular basis, channeling calm positivity during an interview is quite an ask.

Whilst seeking to eradicate interview stress may be impossible, we should strive to manage any anxiety as best we can. If you are aware that it may be an issue, this could be the single most important piece of interview prep that you can do.

In this blog, we offer an anxious person’s guide to interviews. This is written for the millions of job seekers who shudder at the thought of walking into that interview room. Trust me, you are not alone. We cover the following:

  • How do I stop worrying about my job search?
  • How to handle anxiety before an interview
  • How do anxious people survive an interview?
  • What if the interviewer seems stressed?

You can’t ignore anxiety. It will always be there in the background. When it comes to interview nerves, acknowledge them as a possibility and do your best to minimize their impact. Everyone is different, but hopefully, the following ideas may help a little.

Expert tip

Regulate your state of anxiety /arousal. From a physiological perspective, anxiety and arousal are similar. Your amygdala (the neurons in your brain that process emotions) reacts to anxious thoughts in the same way as if your pre-historic ancestor was being chased by a predator. On the other hand, if you seek to switch off this sense of readiness entirely, the resultant lethargy may also be harmful. In any interview situation, turn your nerves into curious anticipation and excitement. Find an emotional balance, if possible. Don’t go too far the other way and become an emotionless robot.

How do I stop being anxious about interviews?

Simple answer? Well, they may not actually be completely possible.

Anxiety is a complex aspect of our mental health that sadly cannot be switched off at will. Its magnitude will depend on the nature of the situation. There are few more anxiety-inducing occasions than an interview for a job that you really want.

You won’t be able to stop your anxious feelings, but you may well be able to manage them. 

This process starts with how you prepare for the unnatural situation of meeting a total stranger who holds the key to your future. It continues as you navigate the inevitable stresses of the interview itself, wishing you had answered this question differently and constantly second-guessing how you should be reacting. Managing anxious feelings is even important after the interview – obsessive rumination after the interview is unhelpful in a protracted job search.

Hopefully, the following suggestions may help you to view anxiety as a puzzle to be solved rather than a brick wall to be scaled. Bit by bit, you have it within you to conquer your interview nerves.

How to handle anxiety before the interview

While you shouldn’t give your anxiety too much thought before the interview (as that may simply provide it with additional mental fuel), there are several things that you can do to acknowledge it and help put your mental attitude on a healthier path.

Visualize how you cope

Role playing the interview, practicing interview questions, and viewing yourself (kindly) across the table from the point of view of the interviewer are all ways of visualizing the interview situation. Imagining yourself answering the questions with quiet confidence will help you to believe that you can do it on the day.

Giving yourself a pep talk immediately before the interview is so much easier when you have already run through the scenarios in your head previously. You have an idea of the tricky questions that may crop up and you have the plan to tackle them. Combined with a cheat sheet of positive thoughts about the value that you might bring to the employer, this imagination-led approach can soothe the deepest fears.

Prioritize sleep 

Negative “what if” thoughts can be the enemy of a good night’s sleep. They are there for a reason: you care about getting the job. However, there is nothing that you can do about them at one o’clock in the morning, so write down whatever thought you have on a piece of paper and promise yourself that you will act on it in the morning. Restful sleep will give your embattled brain a break.

If your mind is still racing before bed, try at least to steer your thoughts toward more positive self-talk. Maybe think back to previous meetings that have gone well, despite your nerves. Now that would be a great thing to dream about.

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Plan a stress-free interview morning

Sometimes, the best antidote to anxiety is to focus on immediate practicalities. Plan to keep yourself busy (in a non-stressful way) in the hours before the interview. Getting to the interview 90 minutes early and sitting in a café might seem like a good idea, but you will just sit there getting yourself worked up.

If you have time, go to the gym first thing in the morning or maybe take the dog for a walk. The worst thing you can do is sit inside and obsess about last-minute preparation. Plan your time so that no activity seems rushed. Do things like preparing your outfit (etc.) the night before. Make sure that you have contingencies for any travel issues.

If you are clear about a plan for the day, that is one less thing to worry about.

How do anxious people survive an interview?

If you know that you have anxious tendencies, it is unrealistic to expect that you will thrive in every interview. There will be moments when your nerves will show, but if you manage to tell your career story to the best of your ability, any nerves should not put off a hiring manager who is invested in you.

If you can survive the anxiety, your story will be the main event. You owe it to your future self not to turn into a trembling wreck. Much as you might feel like it inside, remember that you may well be the solution to their problem. 

Ground yourself, take a deep breath, and get ready to tell your story. The interviewer will give you the opportunity to tell it, as best you can.

Maintain a sense of perspective

This job interview will be one of many. That is the reality for most active job seekers. Opportunities will come and go, but there will certainly be more than one job out there “with your name on it.” Whenever you feel anxiety surfacing during an interview, remind yourself that opportunities abound.

Work out what you want out of your next move and be strategic in your applications. When you build a pipeline of activity that delivers the right kind of roles, activity will lead to interviews. It is then a matter of timing. A role may come up at your dream company the day after tomorrow. If this interview doesn’t work out, there will be another.

Trust your pre-prepared answers

Sometimes interview anxiety can be reduced if you are able to rely on the mental crutches of pre-prepared answers. While no interview can be perfectly scripted if you think through the most common questions it should be possible to be ready for at least half of the conversation. With preparation comes confidence.

While an interviewer may sense that some of the answers are not entirely spontaneous, this is a better option than allowing anxiety to get the better of you and freezing entirely. You control what you can control.

Realize that the interviewer isn’t a mind-reader

You can walk into the interview room with so many anxious thoughts cascading through your head that it may seem like the interviewer can hear them. Sure, they may sense your hesitant manner, but they will likely seek to put you at ease as soon as the chat begins.

Take a moment to tell yourself that you are in charge of what story you tell them. They will judge you on your words and behavior, not on the hours of mental fragility that may have preceded the interview. It is just you and them for an hour of exploring what might be a wonderful potential opportunity for you. Exciting, right? Tell your critical inner voice to take an hour off - the interviewer can’t hear it, anyway.

Shift your focus toward the interviewer

Interview anxiety can be minimized when you persuade your mind to park your racing thoughts and focus on the interviewer instead. What are they asking and how might you best respond? What do they want in their new hire? What challenges will they have in their department over the coming year? You are interviewing them, too.

This shift in focus ensures that the pent-up nervous energy has an external outlet. Your fragile self-confidence can be protected when you are not thinking negatively about yourself so much. Interviewers love a candidate who is keen to engage with them – only you will know the reason why this engagement is so important. Ask them questions.

Don’t force it. Nerves are normal.

When you know that you will be anxious about an interview, there is a real risk of trying too hard to avoid it. Spending all your energy managing your mental state may mean that you do not spend enough on the practical matters of interview preparation. 

It is better to give a solid interview performance with a few nervous moments here and there than be perfectly calm and collected but not quite on the money in terms of your answers. Accept that there will be some level of anxiety, but don’t force yourself to eradicate it totally if this comes to the detriment of your overall performance.

Celebrate after the interview

You will likely think the worst when you leave the interview room. Most anxious people do. You will focus on the negatives and brush over the positives. Ask yourself whether this is a healthy choice. Unless this was a final interview, there are likely to be more to come.

Start the process of prep for the next one the moment you walk out. Be kind to yourself. Celebrate what went well before you analyze what could have gone better. Your interview anxiety will not hit so hard next time if you focus on the positives.

Expert tip

What if the interviewer is anxious? Inexperienced interviewers can find the experience somewhat stressful and may not react entirely normally. If a candidate senses that an interviewer is nervous, the best thing that they can do is keep their language and demeanor positive and try to steer the conversation as much as possible. 

Key takeaways

Allowing anxiety to dominate your interview will result in a missed opportunity. Work out your own way of keeping it to a manageable level. Think about a holistic approach:

  • Visualize a positive outcome and prepare to manage your emotional state.
  • Plan your approach for the interview – you need to feel in control.
  • Maintain perspective whenever worries hit. There are other jobs out there.
  • Shift your focus towards the interviewer and away from your inner turmoil.
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