Many highly motivated and capable people deal with performance anxiety. Learning to recognize it in yourself can help you take your performance to the next level.
When you’re feeling the pressure, sometimes people say things they believe are helpful. Things like…
You think too much!
You need to get out of your own head.
Maybe you should have been more prepared.
These things are never helpful.
However, there are ways to address performance anxiety effectively.
Anxiety vs. Stress
First, consider the difference between anxiety and stress. Many people use those terms interchangeably, but they are actually different. Stress is a term psychology borrowed from engineering, and it refers to the tension within a system. Imagine driving along a bridge, over a large canyon. You definitely want the appropriate amount of stress in the cables holding that bridge up! Too little or too much, and the bridge collapses. For the bridge to work properly, there has to be stress in the structure, and it has to be the right amount for the task.
In the same way, we experience stress in our daily lives. This shows up as our response to threat or opportunity. When we encounter stress, the brain sends messages throughout the body to prepare to fight the tiger or run away. It’s how we have survived as a species, and the stress response not only keeps us alive, it also helps us rise to the challenge in performance or competition.
Performance anxiety occurs when the stress response gets out of control, and the protective instinct no longer helps us perform at our best. Too little response (which almost never happens), and we are under-activated for the task. Too much response from the brain and body, and we experience anxiety. When this occurs, we are not able to perform at optimal levels.
How do I recognize performance anxiety?
The stress response can appear in many ways, physically, cognitively, and emotionally. Again, realize that the stress response is a good thing in the proper dose. Anxiety simply occurs when these things get out of control. Be aware that the stress response often precedes the actual event, so you may have symptoms hours or days before a game, concert, or meeting.
These can include dry mouth, stomach problems, poor sleep, having to urinate at inopportune times, and cold or shaking hands. Sensory symptoms can also include tunnel vision and auditory exclusion (your hearing fails you, often through selective hearing).
These may include racing thoughts, inability to concentrate, and excessive rumination. We can also be overcome with trying to anticipate or predict a particular outcome.
These can include an overwhelming sense of fear or dread, loss of confidence, and being highly reactive to small stimuli.
Two kinds of anxiety
It’s important to recognize two different kinds of anxiety: trait anxiety and state anxiety.
State anxiety is what most of us recognize. This is what we experience in response to a specific situation or stressor. It is the spike in activation in relation to something specific.
Trait anxiety is your baseline “idling speed” of activation. Someone with high trait anxiety is generally more wound-up and tense as a function of their personality. Someone with low trait anxiety is generally more calm and generally relaxed. Trait anxiety is like your internal psychological trampoline. The tighter it is, the higher things bounce when they occur. So, trait anxiety has a direct impact on state anxiety. The lower your trait anxiety, the less stressful things affect you.
How do I overcome performance anxiety?
While the statements at the beginning of this article usually make things worse, there are ways to improve. Research shows that, while expertise and preparation level do not necessarily have an effect on performance anxiety, trait anxiety does. If you want to reduce your performance anxiety, you need to work on loosening that internal psychological trampoline. The good news is that this is entirely possible to do. While it’s not easy, it can be simple.
Coping skills don’t help.
While coping skills have their place, here’s why they generally don’t help with performance anxiety. Remember, the stress response is there to keep us alive. It is driven by the fastest parts of the brain, near the brain stem (what some call the Reptilian Brain). The stress response occurs in under 250 milliseconds. It takes most people 300-350 milliseconds to have a conscious awareness of a thought.
From here, it’s simple arithmetic.If you’re going to rely on cognitive processes to overcome a process of the stress response, you’ve lost that race before it began. By the time you tell yourself “stay calm” you’re already not calm.Click To Tweet Can conscious thoughts help us settle down at that point? Potentially, but understand that relying on this means you’re going to be talking yourself out of a stress response that’s already occurred.
It’s much better to avoid becoming activated in that way at all. The best way to address performance anxiety is to reduce trait anxiety.
Most of us, even athletes, breathe too quickly and too shallow. It’s not uncommon to see adults breathe more than 15 times per minute. By engaging in slow breathing driven by the diaphragm, through the nose, at around 6 breaths per minute (5 seconds in, 5 seconds out), we can lower trait anxiety. Even practicing this a few times a day for 3-5 minutes can have a big effect. Again, waiting until the stressful moment won’t have the best effect – you have to do this consistently, between the stressors. Make it a practice.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Developing the ability to stay present, and see your situation for what it is can help you keep your cool in times of stress. Just realize that mindfulness practice has to take place consistently, between stressful situations to be effective. Waiting until game time to try to find your Zen won’t offer much help. I will post more techniques to this site, so be sure to sign up for my newsletter to be informed about when these are posted.
Neurofeedback and Biofeedback
This is what differentiates my work from 98% of performance consultants out there, and I believe it is the most effective way to achieve higher states of a performance mindset. We can train the brain to interact with the body more efficiently, to promote calm focus. I’ve had multiple neurofeedback clients reduce their reported anxiety levels by over 90% in 6-8 weeks of work. I’ll add more information about neurofeedback and biofeedback soon. If there’s not a provider in your area, feel free to contact me. There are ways for us to work together from a distance.
Other contemplative techniques, such as yoga, Quigong, and Tai Chi can also have a calming effect on trait anxiety. I encourage you to find the technique that fits best for you, and engage in a regular practice. By doing this, you can have a positive effect on your performance anxiety.
If you want to find out how I can help you with this process, don’t hesitate to contact me.