LIFESTYLE

Is Neuroscience the Key to Confidence?

Fiona Fletcher Reid
By Fiona Fletcher Reid,
updated on Aug 25, 2019

Regret over missed opportunities, terrified to ask for a pay rise, or dread in the pit of your stomach at the thought of an upcoming presentation? We’ve all been there, but a lack of confidence doesn’t need to hold you back any longer…

Stand up straight. Talk loudly. Sell yourself. Words that are drilled into us before we attend a job interview. But once hired, how do we keep up the momentum? There are so many aspects of work that make us feel inadequate, and research suggests that we may be in the midst of a confidence crisis.

Unsurprisingly, public speaking ranks as one of the biggest pain points, with 52% of workers claiming they lack the confidence to present in front of large groups. Added to that, 35% of employees are too shy to ask for a pay rise, while 32% are afraid of putting ideas forward.

We look at the most confident people in the office and think that they’re lucky. They were born that way, right? Well, kind of. It’s true that many of our personality traits – from shyness to creativity – are rooted in our genetic makeup. But just because some people are naturally confident doesn’t mean that the rest of us are sentenced to life in the shadows. Confidence can be genetic, but it can also be learned, and that’s where neuroscience comes in.

Laughter is a proven way to lower cortisol levels, as is a talk with a trusted friend

Our brains are made up of millions of nerve cells, which are responsible for our thoughts, mood, emotions, and intelligence. The British Neuroscience Association says that our brain affects our physical movement, breathing, heart rate, and sleep. It makes us who we are.

I spoke to Kirsty Hulse, founder of Roar Training, who has a passion for social neuroendocrinology (a field of study in neuroscience, focused on how hormones impact social behaviours) to find out how we can get strategic with our own self-confidence.

I took part in one of her practical workshops recently and, although I was eager to learn, I thought I would struggle to match Kirsty’s confidence. She’s so at-ease on stage that on this particular day, she incorporates burping into her talk, and still comes off as the ultimate professional. With a background in stand-up comedy, I felt like she had an unfair advantage in the world of work, but I was wrong. What Kirsty graciously admitted to us all that day, is that she, too, suffers from major confidence dips at work.

The secret for Kirsty is knowing that these feelings are intrinsically linked to our brain. It’s all just chemistry. Here are her tips:

Scenario one: Someone else is taking credit for your work

Having the confidence to stand up and get recognition for your work can be hard. It can feel like bragging, and most of us hate to do that.

Kirsty explains that it all lies in our brain’s perception of the situation.

“Actions and how we construe situations can have an impact on our hormonal profile. So perceiving a situation as difficult and threat-inducing will ultimately make it difficult and threat-inducing.”

colleagues working together and smiling

Confronting someone about taking credit for your work can feel like a threat because you anticipate a negative response. This can lead to increased cortisol levels, which can trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response – that comes with unhelpful physical symptoms such as sweating, increased heart rate, and muscle tension. The problem here is that we lose our ability to think, and are overcome by physical reactions.

The good news is that there are practical ways to dampen this limbic response, and they’re pretty simple. Laughter is a proven way to lower cortisol levels, as is a talk with a trusted friend. So before you head into a difficult conversation, phone your funniest pal for some reassurance. You can also encourage an optimal hormone balance with 30 minutes of moderate exercise and power posing.

Scenario two: You want a pay rise

Money is a source of anxiety for many of us, and asking for more of it can be terrifying. We instinctively assume that the answer will be no, because we don’t deserve it. Kirsty says that this train of thought is totally normal, and that being aware of that fact can be helpful.

“We hardwire negative beliefs, and remember threats more than rewards. So acknowledge that you’re more likely to remember the times you’ve failed than the times you’ve succeeded. This is a good reminder to yourself before going into a meeting. It’s natural to feel unqualified, because we’re always thinking about the times we fell short, instead of the times we did well. Normalising this sense of feeling unworthy can help you really focus on all the great attributes you bring to the table.”

Acknowledge that you’re more likely to remember the times you’ve failed than the times you’ve succeeded

Try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and draw on their natural confidence. Choose a role model who you believe would handle the situation effectively (think Beyoncé or Batman) and channel their energy. Ask yourself: ‘How would they walk into a room? How would they sell themselves effectively in order to get this pay rise?’ This can quickly get you into the headspace of feeling in control, instead of under threat.

Scenario three: You’re doing a big presentation

One of the most effective ways to get more confident doing public speaking is practice. When we do the same thing repeatedly, we hardwire new beliefs, and the more you partake in it, the more you’ll realise your own capabilities. Imagine your belief system as a literal footpath on the grass. The first time you walk it you’ll have to find your own way, but after making the same journey a few times, the path becomes worn in, more visible, and easy to follow.

“Nerves just show that you’re doing something that you care about,” says Kirsty. “Nerves are a marker of wanting to do well. They’ve been societally presented as a weakness, but nerves are your body saying: ‘I’m going to do all of the appropriate things to help you nail this.’”

Make it your mission to find that sweet spot where nerves give you energy, without taking over. And if you feel like they are about to take over, do something to lower your cortisol levels, like talking to a friend, laughing, taking a walk, or reframe the situation as an opportunity for reward.


If you’re keen to find out more about how to boost your confidence, to help you thrive at work, Kirsty cites ‘Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work’ by David Rock (Collins, £10.99) as the basis for much of her training and advice.

Fiona is a freelance writer and author, whose book, 'Depression in a Digital Age', is out now.

Fiona Fletcher Reid

By Fiona Fletcher Reid

Fiona Fletcher Reid is a freelance writer and author, whose new book, ‘Work It Out’, is available now (Welbeck Balance, £9.99).

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