January 31, 2022

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Caitlin Harper

What is Performance Anxiety and How Can I Overcome It?

Fear of public speaking—or glossophobia—is often cited as the biggest fear reported by many American adults, beating heights, drowning, flying, and more, but it’s just one form of performance anxiety. So what is performance anxiety and, more importantly, how can we overcome it?

Sweaty palms. Weak knees. Stomach churning. Heart pounding in your chest. Lyrics to Eminem’s Lose Yourself or just another Tuesday, presenting on Zoom in front of your entire team? Whether you're on stage or on screen, it's totally normal to feel a bit of fear with all eyes on you.

If you're one of the many people who find it hard to lose yourself in the moment and perform on cue, you might suffer from performance anxiety.

Fear of public speaking—or glossophobia—is often cited as the biggest fear reported by many American adults, beating heights, drowning, flying, and more, but it’s just one form of performance anxiety. So what is performance anxiety and, more importantly, how can we overcome it?

What is performance anxiety?

“Performance anxiety is the sense of apprehension we get in a public context when we are showing our abilities or we are performing in some way,” said Elisa Monti, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “We also have the sense that we are being evaluated by others, that other people are watching us and having thoughts about how well we are doing.”

So performance anxiety only affects performers?

Not in the traditional sense, no! You don’t have to be a singer or actor standing up on stage in order to have performance anxiety; it can affect us when we’re simply going about our day-to-day, like giving a presentation or doing any daily task where eyes are on us.

Often referred to as “stage fright,” performance anxiety can occur in any situation in which we feel we are being watched or judged: playing sports, performing, public speaking, taking a test, sex, and even writing (hello, writer's block).

What does performance anxiety look and feel like?

Because performance anxiety activates our fight-or-flight response, we often react in the same way we would if we were actually in danger or being attacked. Yikes!

How performance anxiety manifests can be different for different people, but here are some ways it might show up for you:

  • Having butterflies in your stomach
  • Feeling light-headed
  • Feeling the urge to leave the situation
  • Sweating
  • Feeling nauseous

Nervousness or anxiety in certain situations is normal, but people with severe performance anxiety that includes significant anxiety in other social situations may have social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia.

If you find yourself extremely afraid of being judged by others, very self-conscious in everyday social situations, often avoid meeting new people, you have been feeling this way for at least six months, and these feelings make it hard for you to do everyday tasks—such as talking to people at work or school—you may have a social anxiety disorder. Talk to your doctor, therapist, or health care professional about your symptoms so they can help get you the care you need.

For some, the pandemic has added another layer to performance anxiety

It’s normal to feel anxiety about the new ways we've come to work and live. In some cases, we may even feel more anxious, because we have had to adjust to new mediums and become wary of potential technical difficulties, while also coping with the more normal aspects of performance anxiety.

And yet another layer is added once things start to open back up. Maybe you’ve never met your coworkers in person or you’ve only ever communicated with an acquaintance online. What happens when you finally meet face to face? There can be a level of anxiety that comes from “performing” in a new arena (in person) rather than one you’re used to (online).

So how can I overcome performance anxiety?

Elisa has some great advice: investigate your associations, examine how you react, and use those two sets of observations to reframe.

First, investigate your associations with performance anxiety

Why do you feel that it is scary to be seen? What is the earliest memory you have of feeling performance anxiety? What is the trajectory of those feelings from your earliest memory to today? If it helps, do some journaling or a non-writing form of "journaling" to explore.

Next, examine how you react to performance anxiety

What kinds of thoughts do you have? What kind of behaviors do you exhibit? What are some bodily sensations that come up? Your physiological response can tell you a lot about what’s going on in your head, especially if you have a history of trauma. Some people feel flat or checked out while others feel hypervigilant or hyperreactive when they feel watched. Make a note of how you react.

Once you know what thoughts come to mind when you think you’re being watched or judged and what happens in your body as you react, you can start to reframe

Reframing will help you change what’s going on cognitively, behaviorally, psychophysiologically, and somatically.

One way to reframe and get over performance anxiety is to get excited instead. Compared with those who attempt to calm down, individuals who reappraise their anxious arousal as excitement have been found to feel more excited and perform better. Simple strategies such as using positive self-talk, like saying “I am excited!” out loud, or repeating easy messages or mantras to yourself, like “get excited,” can lead you to feel more excited and adopt an opportunity mindset instead of a threat mindset—you’ll look forward to what’s to come instead of being afraid.

Here are a few other things you can try:

  • Challenge specific worries. When we're afraid of something, we sometimes overestimate the likelihood of bad things happening. So make a list of your specific worries and challenge them by seeing if there's any evidence to support that worry and identifying a more likely outcome. For example, if you think you're going to bomb a presentation, be more specific: Do you think someone will call you dumb? You'll get fired? What's the likelihood of you actually getting fired? Has anyone ever called you dumb after a presentation before? What could happen instead?
  • Visualize your success. Imagine that your presentation, performance, or other activity will go well. Positive thoughts can help counteract the negative ones and relieve some anxiety.
  • Do some deep breathing. Take a few deep, slow breaths before you do the thing you're afraid of, or try these other breathing exercises.
  • Focus on the action, not the audience. This is a favorite of mine from my sports and recital days. I'd focus on the play or the opposition or the piece I was playing or my fingers on the piano keys instead of who was watching. It can work for sex, too! Focus on the positive sensations instead of what the other person might be thinking.
  • Recognize your success. After your activity is over, take some time to congratulate yourself. Whatever happened, chances are you were far more critical of yourself than your audience was. See if any of your specific worries actually occurred. Recognize that any mistakes you made are an opportunity to improve your skills (and remember that everyone makes mistakes!).
  • Get support. Join a group that offers support for people who have performance anxiety, like Toastmasters for public speaking and leadership skills or work with a therapist or coach.

Performance anxiety can be scary, but with the right tools, you can cope

You don’t have to give in to your performance anxiety or beat yourself up about not being a natural star on stage. Be kind to yourself as you explore different coping strategies to figure out which might work for you. And if you need support on your journey to kick performance anxiety to the curb, working with a therapist or coach might help.

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About the author

Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.

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