Performance Anxiety:
“I get extremely anxious when I compete in sports or engage in public speaking.”

"Purple Rain" by Mimi Stuart ©

“Purple Rain” by Mimi Stuart ©

As long as I do not take myself too seriously I should not be too badly off.

~Prince

Think of how little anxiety you experience when you are comfortably on your couch watching TV. Now imagine that you are going to perform a concert, give a speech, compete in a tournament, or go on a first date. Would you want to be as stress-free as you are in front of the TV? Or would a totally relaxed, lackadaisical attitude hurt you?

Some stress is good

Some people think that they want to eliminate all anxiety and stress from their lives. Yet a total lack of anxiety generally only occurs when someone feels low energy, apathetic, or indifferent.

In situations involving danger, the unknown, and peak performance, you need to be at your best and on your game; you need to be alert and ready to take action. Anxiety — or stress — in moderate doses prepares you for those situations.

Anxiety is a physical response to a mental state, in addition to other factors such as genetics, personality, history, disease, and drugs. Stress generates an increase in cortisol and adrenaline, which cause you to be alert and ready for action. In excess, anxiety can cause you to freeze, panic, or lose mental or motor control. Yet in moderation, it arouses the senses and increases awareness and the ability to react quickly. It turns out that having too little cortisol can be just as much a problem as having too much.

Excitement and passion

Falling in love, traveling, and intellectual and physical challenges cause anxiety and concurrent chemical changes in the brain known as “excitement.” Events involving situations of novelty, significance, or the unknown cause an arousal of the senses and a state of alertness that allow you to notice everything vividly. Without some anxiety, you won’t experience the exhilaration involved in anticipation, adventure, and peak performance.

Having stress in your life is healthier than no stress, as long as you can exercise some control over the situation. Thus, the goal is not to eliminate stress completely but to re-train your brain to handle anxiety better in the more extreme situations you may face.

Four ways to train your neural-circuitry

1. Practice

Whether your goal is public-speaking, performing at a concert, or competing in a sport, the most effective way to practice is to practice extensively, always with focused attention, and not necessarily in “perfect” external circumstances. With such focused practice, the required movements will occur more naturally and automatically in the future regardless of your anxiety levels.

If you have performance anxiety, it’s good to start with mildly stressful situations to avoid traumatizing yourself. A gradual increase in stress is much more effective than jumping into panic-inducing situations. If you want to do more public speaking, for instance, practice in front of the mirror, make toasts at the dinner table, go to toastmasters, and eventually give small workshops. If you play an instrument, start by practicing with other people in the room, and invite more and more people over to listen.

2. Imagine the worst-case scenario

Prepare yourself by imagining how you would handle the worst-case scenario. For example, at a Nationals water ski tournament, I saw a slalom competitor respond beautifully to a worst-case scenario. After falling at the one ball on her opener, which is about the worst performance possible, she came out of the water without any hint of anger or embarrassment, and simply shrugged it off. She laughed and said that she felt fortunate to be competing at Nationals, and that she hoped to do better the following year. Because she had such a great response and demeanor, other people did not feel embarrassed or sorry for her. Instead they felt comfortable, and retained respect for her.

It also helps to have a sense of humor about yourself and to remember what Michael Jordan once said:

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career, lost almost 300 games, missed the game-winning shot 26 times. I’ve failed over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed.

3. Practice getting centered.

During practice or performance, we need to be prepared to deal with self-defeating thoughts that do nothing but intensify our anxiety.

“What an idiot I am! That was horrible!”

“What if I can’t remember?”

“Oh no. Look who just walked in.”

When people get distracted by a negative thought or an unexpected interruption, they get centered again in very different ways. Here are some examples of how to get your focus back quickly:

1. Take a slow deep breath.

2. Focus on others rather than how you appear to them.

3. Focus on kinesthetic feeling rather than on your thoughts about how well you must perform.

4. Imagine a relaxed place — a serene beach or a loved one appreciating you.

5. Practice simply letting go of distracting thoughts and moving on. Meditation is a great way to practice getting centered.

6. Pretend you are someone who exudes the right kind of confidence or does your activity well. Mirroring is the fastest way to learn new attitudes and behaviors, just as infants and children do. With practice, you will own that energy and embody it in your own personal way.

4. Gain Perspective

Given personality traits, upbringing, and other environmental factors, people develop unconscious assumptions of what will happen if they fail or make mistakes. For example, they may feel that they will be unlovable, a failure, worthless, or unhappy.

To put your fears in perspective, it helps to investigate what makes people feel happy, worthwhile, or lovable. Research shows that the greatest happiness comes from activities such as maintaining meaningful relationships, helping others, having a sense of community, meditating, smiling, and laughing. Exercising, adequate sleep, and eating healthy foods also have a serious impact on our well-being. Learning and executing skills does positively effect our well-being as well, but it is lower on the list than having good relationships, helping others, and feeling a sense of community. We want to make sure that our perfectionist thinking about performing skills doesn’t sabotage the more important ingredients for a happy and meaningful life.

Living life

Life is rarely stress-free because life by its nature requires us to deal with the unknown on a daily basis. However, the more practice we get in handling the unknown, the more confidently we can approach life and its challenges. If we are experiencing anxiety, we are living. Only by doing mundane activities mindlessly do we get relief from all stress — by sleeping through life. Is that what we really want?

Look at the adventure, challenges, and growth we would be missing if we chose to eliminate all stress! Through facing the anxieties of living life, we learn to handle new exhilarating and challenging situations.

Sometimes it takes years to become an overnight success.

~Prince

by Dr. Alison Poulsen

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