May 172012

performance anxiety

How To Overcome Performance Anxiety

When you have to perform, regardless of where or in what endeavor, if there are other people involved, performance anxiety is a very common affliction.  In other words, you feel all sorts of stress and anxiety as you are preparing to perform and during the performance itself.  It happens in business, sports, acting, speaking, among a variety of other areas of life.

So, if you are afflicted with performance anxiety, what should you do?  In order to answer this question well, it’s important to first understand why performance anxiety happens in the first place.

One of the most important reasons for performance anxiety is that we become afraid that we will not perform well.  We think there’s a chance that our performance will not live up to our expectations, to those of people we care about, and to those of people in general.  This happens whether there is any physical danger involved or not.  I guess we can refer to this as “mental danger,” that is, the fear that our ego will be injured or that others will not think of us as highly.

There are, of course, situations where there is actual physical danger involved, and where a panic response can be triggered, which can have a profound effect on our performance.  Such a response, triggered via the amygdala in our brains, is not referred to as the “fight or flight response” for no reason;  it is a very strong response to fear, and in such a state of mind, concentration and optimal performance of tasks can be very difficult to make happen.  As I’ve written elsewhere, this effect can be seen very clearly in the exercises U.S. Navy Seals must perform as part of passing the Underwater Pool Competency test.

For the purposes of this article though, let’s get back to non-life-threatening situations where, as the saying goes, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.  What can we do to overcome performance anxiety and increase the probability that we will perform well when the time comes?

First, it is important to be aware that we are experiencing performance anxiety and that it is something that we are foisting upon ourselves, due in great part to how we are thinking.

Second, it is key that we do a sanity check.  That is to say, it’s critical that we ask ourselves if we are perhaps overreacting to the situation.  We don’t need an answer at this point, but we have to at least leave the possibility open that we may be blowing things out of proportion.

Third, we need to try to think in relative terms about what we’re about to do.  We should put it on a scale, with say a walk in a safe park on a sunny day being the lowest level of stress and risk, to super dangerous activities (such as base jumping or being caught in the cross-fire in a war zone) being the highest level of stress.  Where does this activity we’re about to perform fit on that scale?  By doing this, we can try to keep perspective on the reality of how unnecessary our performance anxiety likely is.

Fourth, we should use a mental trick or two to lessen the level of stress in our minds.  For example, and you’ve probably heard this one, if you’re about to give a speech in front of a large group of people and you’re scared to death to step out on the stage, picture all of the audience members in their underwear!  That should give you a good laugh and lighten the mood a bit in your mind.  It should also loosen you up, so you’re not too stiff when you give your speech.

Fifth, there’s a strong likelihood that you are quite literally blowing things out of proportion in your mind.  That is, you are probably thinking about the negative consequences of not doing “well” or particular risk factors in extreme terms.  You are probably seeing them very large in your mind.  If that’s the case, you should see them very small or distorted or in funny colors.  In other words, you should manipulate, in your mind, the various images that are troubling you, until such point as they become funny or even ridiculous.

Sixth, you should “stay inside your mind,” focusing on your own thoughts, not worrying about what others may say or think about how you will perform.  The fact is that in many cases, we bring far too much stress upon ourselves, simply by worrying that we’re going to disappoint others and not live up to their expectations.  We get concerned about what they may say to us or about us.  If you are going to be an effective performer, in almost any endeavor, you need to get over this behavior.  Stay inside your mind and perform for your own reasons.  Make sure that you are OK with yourself and your actions.  Do not focus on critics or potential critics.  Focus on doing better by your own standards.

Seventh, and perhaps most importantly, be aware of and take control of your breathing.  There’s a good chance that if you have excess anxiety, you will be breathing too quickly and/or too shallowly.  Make sure you are taking good deep breaths and exhaling fully.  Slow your breathing down to the point where you feel more comfortable and more relaxed.  Just the act of taking control of your breathing can make a significant difference in keeping your performance anxiety manageable.

Eighth, and finally for now, if all else fails, remember that at some point in the future (presumably and hopefully, far in the future), our sun will run out of fuel and become what’s known as a Red Giant, then a White Dwarf.  When this happens (remember, we’re talking millions, or more likely, billions of years from now), I won’t bore you with the details, but the scenario will be very bad for Earth and the human race and the game (the big game) will likely be over.  Suffice to say that if the Earth even survives the sun’s transition to White Dwarf, it will be completely frozen over. When you look at your performance anxiety in the context of this massive and inevitable future event, it is likely to not seem like such a big deal.  I’m not saying to run around being “gloom and doom” and a downer for yourself or others, but I am saying that you really need to keep it all in perspective.  If you can do this, you’ll have your performance anxiety under control before you know it.

I look forward to your thoughts.  Please leave a comment (“response”) below or in the upper right corner of this post.

Paul Morin

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  • Lance

    This is a very good post for performers like me. Although it is natural to fell some scrapes before standing in front of a very critical crowd, we should not let the anxiety affect our performance.

  • Agreed. Everyone is a performer at some level, so it’s key to learn how to overcome performance anxiety!

  • Great post – it’s cool to see performance anxiety discussed in the context of entrepreneurship. I completely agree that it’s a pretty normal thing that we all experience – not a pathological condition or sign of weakness.

    Perhaps you’ve already written about this, but another helpful strategy is adversity training. Where you train yourself to be able to rise to the challenge, no matter how difficult the circumstances.

    For instance, go for a jog, step in front of a videocamera, and do a run-through of the first few minutes of your presentation, despite being out of breath, dripping sweat, and feeling your heart pounding in your chest (to simulate the physical aspects of anxiety). Or wake yourself up at 3am, and immediately go into presentation mode with full enthusiasm in front of a videocamera.

    As the saying goes, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

  • Thanks, Noa! Excellent points! I have not written about adversity training, but will put it on the list, as I think it would fit in nicely with the peak performance theme of several of the posts on the Company Founder blog.

  • Annie

    This is definitely very helpful and beneficial for all of us especially when we are those people who needs to perform and present something here and then.. Great job!

  • Hi Paul,
    I have performance anxiety especially in a new job or with a new client. There is this fear that I won’t measure up to their standards. I try to deal with it by doing my best, and knowing that I did my best, leaving it all to Him.
    I like your advice of staying inside our minds and focusing on doing better by our own standards the most. How much stress that would help avert!

  • Thanks for your comment, Theresa. The strategy of staying inside our minds and measuring ourselves against our goals rather than against other people is key, especially until we gain the confidence necessary to move to the next level.

  • Ashley

    It feels like you can’t breathe, you’re seeing spots and you can hardly speak, much less imagine going on stage to perform. If you struggle with this problem, follow these basic steps to help prevent performance anxiety..

  • I just feel this whenever I think someone is better than me to do my job, or that I’ll be replaced anytime because of my errors. Maybe my self esteem has declined in after giving birth.

  • Netsteps

    Great read as usual John, deep breathing does really help keep you calm when you feel like an anxiety attack is coming.

  • Netsteps

    Paul*, sorry bout that, was talking to someone named John lol 🙂

  • No problem … just don’t call me later for dinner. 🙂

  • Agreed — taking control of our breathing in pressure situations can make a HUGE difference in the outcome!

  • Robb H

    I’m looking for some help/advise for our 17 yr old daughter. She’s a hgh performance alpine ski racer, going to a high school for similar athletes. She does well academically during the school term but chokes on her diploma exams. She seems to prepare well, takes practise exams at school and on line, took a prep course for the exam, then fails it and not by a little bit. How can we help her, what might she be doing when she sits down to write an exam?

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