How to deal with performance anxiety

You tremble, blush, and your heart is throbbing. Your thoughts racing. What if they see that you're nervous? What if you get brain fog? What will they think of you? Maybe it's best to come up with an excuse, get away? If you are struggling with performance anxiety, you may have heard that you just have to keep practicing, then you will have less anxiety. But, why are then so many people still dealing with this crippling feeling? Possibly we are approaching it in the wrong way. Let's have a look!

What is performance anxiety?

Performance anxiety is a type of anxiety that appears when you have to perform, and often when you have to do something in front of other people, so that they can have opinions about you and what you deliver. Some common examples are

  • leading meetings
  • speaking in assemblies
  • giving speeches
  • performing something on a stage
  • holding courses
  • talking on the phone
  • speaking in front of a class

Many leaders, actors, singers and musicians struggle with performance anxiety, and this can make the job more difficult than it needs to be. Due to anxiety, many people avoid or quit jobs they are initially good at, and enjoy.

Why do you get performance anxiety?

For some, it starts out with a bad experience. If you've ever gotten brain fog or severe anxiety when you should say or do something in front of others, it’s understandable that you might want to avoid it happening again. Performance anxiety can be incredibly uncomfortable, and often it feels completely uncontrollable. Because it feels so catastrophic, and at the same time as something you have no control over, many people worry a lot in advance of presentations. They envision worst-case scenarios and try to come up with solutions.

The worries can start weeks or months in advance and often increase as time approaches. For some, worrying takes up hours every day, creating concentration issues and difficulty functioning at work. Dreading your performance can also take away presence and enjoyment from leisure time, and it can be difficult to sleep the days leading up to the performance.

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Coping strategies actually maintain anxiety

As the worries take up more space and anxiety increases, many people have a need to do something to alleviate or control the anxiety. Therefore, many start to implement a whole range of measures or coping strategies towards presentations. You may:

  • Avoid presentations.
  • Have an excuse ready so you can escape if need be.
  • Talk yourself down, or say something about being a little sick or having slept poorly, in order to apologize that the presentation is not on point.
  • Bring water.
  • Take a sedative.
  • Spend an incredible amount of time preparing.
  • Have something to hold on to.
  • Write down everything you need to say.
  • Speak quickly and say as little as possible.
  • Have many slides.
  • Trying to deflect, for example by asking questions.

Scientific research on Metacognitive Therapy found that coping strategies can in fact maintain anxiety. And this metacognitive understanding is a radical break from traditional beliefs. It may feel like coping strategies are helping, but they are actually helping to perpetuate the problem. This is partly because the coping strategies draw your attention inwards towards yourself, which increases your self-awareness. At the same time, coping strategies reduce your mental capacity so that you have less attention left to focus on the performance and what you want to convey.

Coping strategies also make you more insecure

If it goes well, you don’t know if you would have done well anyway, or if it was the coping strategies that "saved" you. It often feels as if the latter is the case. This makes it more likely that you will continue to use these strategies.

In addition, coping strategies maintain a sense that you need them, which means you spend more time dealing with the possibility of losing control and how to avoid it. The coping strategies simply increase the focus on the anxiety towards presentations, and rob you of the opportunity to find out that you can do it (better!) without the strategies.

Using coping strategies also sends a strong signal to the brain that presentations are something quite dangerous and scary. When you give such signals to the brain, it increases anxiety. Nevertheless, many cling on to these strategies. It feels like they are helping, and many are afraid that the performance will go worse without it. They are afraid that if they let go of coping strategies, they will:

  • Make a fool of themselves
  • Get brain fog
  • Faint
  • That others will see that they have anxiety

To be sure that you can do without your coping strategies, we do various exercises in the classes and explore what are the effects of getting through a challenge with and without the use of coping strategies.

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How did I really appear, and what do they think of me now?

One last thing that maintains performance anxiety is ruminating and self-evaluation. Many people spend a lot of time mentally reviewing their own performance after performing something in front of an assembly or group. It may be that you dive into thoughts such as:

  • How did I appear?
  • Did they see that I was nervous?
  • What do they think of me now?
  • Oh no, I forgot to say…!
  • I shouldn’t have said… that way!
  • I am so stupid! Why can’t I do this?
  • Maybe I shouldn’t be a leader / actor / musician?

The rumination and self-evaluation, mixed with self-criticism, can last anywhere from a few hours to several days or weeks, and creates a lot of discomfort and uncertainty. Often the goal of the rumination is to get an answer to how one appeared, what one could have done differently, and to learn something for the next time. The goal can also be to find an answer to why you struggle with performance anxiety so that you can find a way to overcome the anxiety.

However, you normally only feel worse the longer you do it, and you may not find the answer to why you have anxiety, how you appeared, or what to do differently next time. What is certain is that prolonged self-evaluation and self-criticism lead to melancholy and low self-esteem. What may have felt like an ok, if not perfect, presentation right after you finished it, eventually appears as a total disaster when you have been critically going through it for a while.

Treating performance anxiety - What helps?

What helps depends to some extent on the individual, on what coping strategies you use and what you are afraid will happen. But we can give some general tips that will be useful to most people.

1) Limit worrying. It’s normal to worry when performing or presenting something, but try to limit the time you spend imagining disaster scenarios and how to deal with them.
2) Use fewer coping strategies. Coping strategies steal focus and confidence.
3) Direct focus outwards and not inwards towards yourself when presenting.
4) Limit ruminating and self-criticism after you finish your presentation. Feeling insecure and thinking about things you wish were different is normal. But if you dive deep into these thoughts, you will only feel bad, and neither your previous nor your next presentation will get any better.

Want to learn more?

If you liked this article and want to learn more then consider downloading our free PDF '3 steps to less worry and anxiety' where we present our favorite strategies on how to reduce anxiety.

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