Performance Anxiety – Treatment and Tips

What is performance anxiety?

Performance anxiety is said to occur when you experience anxiety before giving some performance in front of other people.

Who gets performance anxiety?

I shall break it into the following subtopics to answer this most effectively.

Stage Fright

Sexual performance anxiety

Social Anxiety

Stage Fright

Stage fright describes the anxiety experienced by those who perform on a stage, typically.,

  • musicians
  • actors
  • people who give speeches on a stage
  • people on television

Social Anxiety

People with social phobia can be said to experience performance anxiety. Still, I think the difference between social anxiety and performance anxiety is that the person with performance anxiety may only feel anxiety when about to perform. In contrast, someone with social anxiety may feel anxious in many other social situations.

Performance Anxiety can be experienced before you go on stage, give a talk, participate in sports, speak in public, attend an interview or teach.    It is the stress you experience before you perform.  For most people, once they start performing, they are relatively ok; once out there, a musician is lost in the performance and relaxes into it.  However, it can be quite a different story before going on stage.  We will look at how performance anxiety arises and what you can do to overcome it.

The build-up to performance anxiety.

For some people, this can occur days or weeks before they have to perform.  Usually, it is in terms of the thoughts relating to the performance as opposed to physical symptoms in the body.  Even though the performance may be weeks away, your thoughts can be taken up with;

  • I won’t be able to do this
  • I am going to be judged
  • I’m not as good as I used to be
  • I’m not going to be able to meet other people’s expectations
  • What if I fail?
  • What if I can’t play
  • What if I can’t perform
  • What if I can’t remember what I have to say
  • They won’t like me

These types of thoughts are not helping you in any way.  I know you know that already, but you might not be aware of the impact of the thoughts.

Thoughts and performance anxiety.

Our thoughts are not neutral.  They usually have some emotional impact on us.  For example, suppose you are going about your day as usual and feeling relaxed and happy, and your mind wanders into an upcoming event where you will have to perform pretty soon. In that case, you will no longer feel relaxed and happy and might start worrying.  Your thoughts can start to affect how you are feeling – your mood.  Now your mood has changed when nothing is happening (except for your thought processes relating to an event that has yet to happen), and the worst is, you are doing it to yourself!

We don’t mean to, but a lot of the stress and performance anxiety are what we do to ourselves.  It’s normal; it is just how we work.  Our brain is excellent at mulling over all the possible negative scenarios that we can think of.  Think of it as a running commentary on how we think we will do.  This eventually creates what is called anticipatory anxiety.

By the time the event comes around, where you have to perform, speak or take an exam, you have perfected this running commentary to the point that you now have physical symptoms.  You are waiting to go on stage, give a presentation or take an exam, and your heart is pounding, and your hands are so sweaty you have no idea how to hold an instrument or paper.  Your mind has gone blank, and you have no idea what your presentation or exam is about.

Why does performance anxiety happen?

If you have been worrying about an upcoming event, you are teaching your brain to match up the event with the worrying thoughts and feelings you are having.  Once the event comes around, your brain gives you the anxiety that you have been building up to the performance as your brain has matched the event to the anxiety you have been experiencing when thinking about it.  You experience the physical symptoms of anxiety.  Heart palpitations, dry mouth, shaking, sweating, fear, nervousness, trembling, mental blocks…

Some people can cope with this and go on stage, give the presentation, take the exam, and eventually settle into it.  For others, it can affect performance.  You might be giving a speech or presentation or performing on stage, but you are overcome with the physical symptoms, and your mind is racing, second-guessing how you are doing and what people are thinking of you.  When this happens, it is practically impossible to relax into it, and you might find that you will avoid similar things in the future.  Many good musicians, athletes, performers, people, and business people have coped with performance anxiety by avoiding the things that were making them anxious.  They no longer feel anxious but no longer do the things they love or are part of their job.  This compounds the anxiety that you experience as you never get the chance to recover from performance anxiety.

Recovering from performance anxiety

I’m afraid this will sound a bit like the old saying about facing your fears, but it is a little more complicated!  Many people who experience performance anxiety or stage fright can get rid of the overwhelming feelings and start to perform again.  It would help if you taught your brain that performing, speaking in public, or taking exams is okay for you.  We do this on several levels.

Teaching you not to worry about the event days or weeks beforehand as creates anticipatory anxiety, which is frankly not necessary.  If the event is a few weeks away, worrying about it will not help your performance, it will possibly hinder it, and it affects the days in between when there is probably nothing in your day that warrants that level of anxiety.

We need to get rid of our thoughts relating to our ability to perform, such as I’m not good enough, I can’t do it.

And we need to get you back on the saddle, so to speak, by showing you how to approach the event without all the troubling symptoms.

In a nutshell, we work with your thoughts and feelings, the physical symptoms of anxiety you experience, to take the fear out of it.  We cannot be relaxed and afraid simultaneously, which means once you are relaxed, you can perform without feeling unnecessary anxiety or second-guessing what is going on.  You will just perform!

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