Five years after my wedding, I can still see myself walking through the winery’s garden toward my now husband, Michael, who was standing under a rose-covered arch. And I still get flushed when I think back to the wedding guest who told me after the ceremony that I had gently twisted right and left as I held Michael’s hands to recite our vows. “You used to do that when you were little and you got nervous,” he said, giving me a kiss on the cheek before heading into cocktail hour.
I’m not the first confident woman to experience bridal nerves. “Planning a wedding can be one of the most stressful things you’ll ever go through,” says psychologist Jennifer Alison, the best-selling author of How to Talk to Anyone. A bride or groom can face a landslide of feelings, from monumental joy to relief over the culmination of months of planning to anxiety about speaking in front of her guests, dancing in the spotlight, or posing for portraits. “The good news is, there are things you can do to get yourself prepared for your big day,” says Alison, and to coolly navigate all those wedding-day social situations you don’t regularly encounter.
Say “I Do”
Standing in front of a crowd and expressing your deepest feelings could rattle even the most experienced public speaker. To control that anxiety, repeatedly visualize yourself and your soon-to-be spouse standing at the altar, reciting your vows. “The more you envision the moment you are most nervous about, the less daunting it will be when the time actually comes,” says Alison. “Once you’ve let yourself feel those nerves, imagine that moment again, but this time feel calm and confident. See it going exactly the way you want it to.”
Another stage-fright-busting exercise is to use tunnel vision when saying “till death do us part.” “Totally focus on your partner,” advises Brooklyn-based public-speaking coach Jezra Kaye. “Just look him in the eye and speak directly to him.”
If you’re really dreading it, know that you can opt out of this tradition: Some couples are now exchanging their vows in private and hosting a more intimate dinner party afterward. “We have this idea that there is a template we need to buy into,” says Laurie Helgoe, a psychologist based in Charleston, West Virginia, and the author of Introvert Power. “More and more, we see people taking creative approaches to their wedding ceremony. Your big day doesn’t have to be a show that’s choreographed by our culture; it should be choreographed by you.”
Raise a Glass
Whether at your shower, rehearsal dinner, or actual wedding, sooner or later you’ll be asked to say a few words. Keep it short—three minutes is ideal, five minutes tops—express gratitude, and limit yourself to no more than one glass of “liquid courage,” which can impair your coordination. (You can always drink to a job well done after.) Beverly Hills–based therapist Greta Angert, who treats patients with stress and anxiety disorders, suggests “making eye contact with a friend or family member who makes you feel calm and supported and repeatedly looking back at that person.”
Also, rehearse your toast until you feel calm delivering it. “Practicing is key,” says public-speaking coach Ruth Sherman, who works with everyone from celebrities to CEOs. “It mitigates stage fright.” But keep in mind that a little nervousness makes you more engaging. “You want a little of that adrenaline flowing through your veins, but if you haven’t practiced, the adrenaline will throw you off.”
If all else fails, says Kaye, fake it till you make it: “Research shows that if you act confident, you will feel more confident.”
You may have your selfie “smize” down—and that’s key—but “the engagement session is the single best thing you can do to alleviate fears,” says Chicago-based wedding photographer Bryan Creely. “It gives you a chance to not only learn what poses work for you but also build trust with your photographer. This trust will pay dividends on your big day.”
Law Roach, America’s Next Top Model judge and celebrity stylist for Zendaya and Ariana Grande, also recommends a bonding sesh, such as coffee or lunch, with your photographer, as well as posing for selfies with your squad so you can figure out your “good side.” (Yes, we all have one, says Roach.) “Taking a great photo isn’t natural for all of us,” he says. “You have to practice in the mirror to find your best angles. Once you’ve mastered that, your confidence level will rise, and it becomes very easy to do it over and over again.”
And don’t forget about your body: “Instead of standing with both legs straight, which makes a column-like effect in your dress, bend one knee nearly across your other knee to put a curve in your figure,” says Maine wedding photographer Emilie Sommer. “To help create a more flattering jaw line, with separation between your chin and neck, bring your whole face toward the camera, like a turtle.”
Then subtly turn away from the lens when shooting your close-up. Says Sommer, “My favorite images are often those when the bride is laughing or looking downward to the side a touch, so we can see those stunning lashes.”
Hit the Floor
It’s easy to feel like a rock star when you’re dancing around your house. However, in the spotlight at your reception, things get a little more challenging. The solution for any couple: dance lessons. (Consider a one-hour class for something simple, four to five sessions for something more complex.) “For someone who is not an experienced dancer, you have to start with simple movement together, and then you open it up to a couple of steps. Then you teach them a frame. Then you teach them to lead and follow,” says Dancing with the Stars’s Maksim Chmerkovskiy, who also runs Dance with Me Studios, where the most popular lesson package is wedding-day choreography.
Chmerkovskiy and his brother, Val, even helped choreograph Chelsea Clinton’s first dance with husband Marc Mezvinsky. “You can put together a number fairly quickly and easily just based on some things that work: a little bit of a dip, a little bit of a turn, a little bit of a twirl....”
Another pro tip: Don’t feel obligated to dance to all four minutes and 29 seconds of John Legend’s “All of Me.” “If you love a song but it lasts forever, cut it down to a minute and a half,” suggests DJ Gray, an NYC-based performer and choreographer. “We do that all the time as dancers.” Or you and your husband could take the spotlight for just the first 30 seconds and then have the DJ invite everyone to the dance floor. “You don’t necessarily have to do all the traditional things if it will make you miserable,” reminds Angert.
Mix & Mingle
While you might prefer to hang with your crew at your reception, you will need to spend face time with your fiancé’s family, your parents’ friends, and the plus-ones at your wedding. If small talk isn’t your thing, think of a few cordial lines ahead of time that work for any guest and don’t be afraid to repeat them, advises Angert. “So happy to see you,” “Hope you’re having a good time,” and “How do you like the food/music/venue?” all work. Then politely excuse yourself to the bar, bathroom, or Uncle Steve and Aunt Sally.
If you need to stretch the conversation further, ask people follow-up questions about themselves. Pick up a thread from their last question and turn it on them. For example, if they ask about your honeymoon plans, say, “We’re so excited to go to Mexico. Where was your last vacation?”
And don’t be intimidated about how many people you have to talk to; think of your wedding as tables of 10 versus a party of 200. “You can have interactions that are smaller, where you roam the room but talk to just a few people at a time,” says Helgoe. “Once you give yourself permission to do that, you’ll immediately feel less pressure.”
And remember, “Your guests are rooting for you; they are there to celebrate your love and the future you will share with your spouse,” says Alison. “Let yourself be present, and enjoy every minute of your wedding so you can look back on that day with love and joy.”