Performance anxiety? We’ve all been there at one time or another. But what about the most extreme anxiety that causes us to choke at the worst possible time?
For me, a few days or a week before the Big Exam, the Do-or-Die Presentation, or the event in which all the puzzle pieces need to come together in meticulous fashion, anxiety manifests itself in dream. I find myself on stage and all set for a dance recital, but fear obliterates the carefully choreographed sequence of steps as I have practiced them, drowns out the guiding hand of the music, and leaves me utterly unable to move.
I am paralyzed, staring into stage lights. Anxiety has killed my performance. I am the poster child for choking under pressure.
Here’s how another version of the dream plays out: I am amply prepared for the presentation, but when I reach the podium and gaze out at the crowd, my throat tightens, my tongue goes dry, my mind becomes a blank. A ringing sound in my ears and a slight vertigo shake any sense of physical orientation.
Performance anxiety strikes again.
Choking Under Pressure
I won’t say that I never mess up at the most critical moment, but I rarely find myself completely unable to accomplish what I must. Still, the more nervous I am, the less likely that I will deliver the quality result that I need.
Harvard Business Review took on this topic in The Relationship Between Anxiety and Performance, as the article explains that we are both hard-wired for certain types of stress responses and able to learn to perform better.
Research shows a strong correlation between your genetically conferred physiology and how likely you are to crack under stress… neuropeptide Y (NPY), a neurotransmitter in the brain that regulates stress responses, among other things, is relatively fixed from birth, more a function of heredity than of learning. People high in NPY tend to be unusually psychologically resilient and resistant to breaking down in high-pressure situations… But that said, there’s also an element of “nurture” at work here. Psychological resilience is a trait that can be taught…
Athletes may look at particular types of anxiety as adversary: the player who’s normal prowess crumbles in the clutch, causing the championship to perpetually elude him.
The professional performer may struggle with stage fright, though just the right amount of anxiety may draw out a superb result.
Personally, I’ve had anxiety ruin an interview, a date, a special day. Haven’t you? But I am encouraged to know that we can learn to improve performance.
Anxiety Is Powerful and Damaging
As a parent, I have also been subject to worry getting the best of me. When that happens, my ability to reason is compromised. Make that severely compromised. That’s a very special sort of anxiety that most mothers and fathers will recognize — when a little one is hurt or an adolescent is in trouble.
In a more routine example, I recently found myself in the position of taking a professional exam following an extended period of study. Once upon a time, I was a well-oiled machine when it came to academic tests; like others who spend years in college, graduate programs, and continuing development, learning was a comfortable pastime. More importantly, structured learning and assessments didn’t seem daunting.
But it’s been years since I’ve taken a class or course, and while old habits die hard, I wasn’t feeling warm and fuzzy about my ability to switch back to professional student mode. And I wasn’t interested in simply spitting back whatever was stored in short-term memory. The fact was, I genuinely wanted to master the material and be able to put it into practice.
Still, I wanted to do well!
Before the test, cue the pounding chest, the sweaty palms, and worry that I would choke. Anxiety was fueled by what I didn’t know, and I felt as ridiculous as a high school kid. Would I have enough time? Would the exam be multiple choice? Would there be essays? Would there be a facility to skip questions and come back before the time ran out? What if I had connectivity problems?
Once into the test, I was reassured by the format of the assessment and my comfort level with the subject matter. Score one for not letting performance anxiety get the better of me. And incidentally, that would have been more likely if I had been hungry or overtired.
Tips to Ease Performance Anxiety
As for gauging and managing anxiety so that it doesn’t impede achieving our objectives, I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks over the years that work for me. The most important, mentioned above — preparation.
So here they are, my tips:
- Know your material / subject
- Gather as much information as you can about circumstances, to reduce unknowns
- Make sure you are as rested and physically comfortable as possible
- Talk to a confidante about your anxiety
- If you have an especially critical inner voice, tell it to take a hike!
- Practice, practice, practice
- Just before and during: Take slow, deep breaths
- Just before and during: Soothing self-talk (“You know your stuff… You’re fine…”)
- Ask yourself “what is the worst that can happen”
In my experience, fear for one’s safety (or the safety of a child) will significantly hamper our ability to reason clearly. That is not the sort of performance problems that most of us struggle with day to day. Rather, we are fearful of speaking (and being judged negatively), we are fearful of being embarrassed (in the spotlight), we are fearful of what we see as failure (of all sorts). I differentiate these fears from managing phobias, which is another matter and a different discussion.
When we find perspective (“what’s the worst that can happen?”), when we prepare well (practice, knowledge of subject matter, reducing unknowns), we regain a sense of control and are more likely to keep the most damaging aspects of anxiety at bay.
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