Performance anxiety is an extremely common issue that affects people across all walks of life. It refers to the fear and apprehension felt in situations where one is expected to perform in some way, often in front of others. This anxiety stems from a fear of failure, judgement, or embarrassment.
Performance anxiety can happen in all types of situations – from public speaking, to test taking, to athletic competitions. It’s an overwhelming feeling that can seriously hinder one’s ability to function and perform at their best.
While a little nervousness is normal, full blown performance anxiety can be debilitating. The physical symptoms like increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, and nausea make it very difficult to focus and do well. Furthermore, the mental distress caused by negative thoughts and fear of failure often become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The good news is that this cycle of performance anxiety can be broken. By understanding the causes, utilizing effective strategies, and reframing thought patterns, individuals can overcome performance anxiety. With consistency and practice, confidence can be built and maintained.
This article will explore the cycle of performance anxiety, its causes and effects, and provide actionable tips to finally break free. Read on to learn how to harness nerves and maximize your potential, no matter the situation.
What Is Performance Anxiety?
Performance anxiety refers to excessive worry or fear related to performance that can interfere with functioning. It goes beyond the normal jitters everyone feels and crosses into true distress.
Some key characteristics of performance anxiety include:
- Apprehension about an upcoming event where one must perform in some way. This may be public speaking, a test, a sports game, a musical recital, or another evaluative situation.
- Intense fear of failure, embarrassment, or judgement from others. The stakes feel overwhelmingly high.
- Negative and worrying thoughts that fixate on possible failures. “What if I mess up? What if I freeze? What if I make a fool of myself?”
- Physical symptoms like nausea, shaking, sweating, racing heart, and shortness of breath. These sensations further heighten anxiety.
- Avoidance of anxiety provoking situations. People may make excuses to get out of activities or responsibilities that trigger performance anxiety.
- Poor performance and choke under pressure. When anxiety takes over, it directly hinders ability to perform well.
Performance anxiety is very common and affects an estimated 15-20% of the population. It can happen to anyone, regardless of actual skill or preparation. Often, the most competent and skilled individuals experience performance anxiety precisely because they care deeply about doing well.
Performance anxiety should not be confused with shyness or introversion. One can feel completely comfortable in social situations yet still experience extreme performance anxiety related to specific scenarios like public speaking. It is also not the same as general anxiety, which persists across many domains of life.
Why Does Performance Anxiety Happen?
Performance anxiety is rooted in both biological and psychological factors that can feed off each other to create a vicious cycle. Main causes include:
Fight or Flight Response
Performance situations naturally activate the body’s fight-flight-freeze stress response. The amygdala part of the brain senses a potential threat – the fear of failure or embarrassment. This kicks off a cascade of neurological and physiological changes:
- Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration – To supply the body with more oxygen to react to the perceived threat.
- Release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones increase energy but may cause shaking, sweating, and nausea.
- Increased muscle tension to prepare for action. This can lead to feelings of tightness and trembling.
While this response evolved to handle life-threatening situations, it can easily be triggered by the pressures of modern day performance scenarios. Fight-or-flight puts the mind and body on high alert – great for fleeing from predators, but not so helpful for calming performing on stage.
Faulty Thinking Patterns
Cognitive distortions and unhelpful thought patterns also feed performance anxiety:
- All-or-nothing thinking – Viewing the situation as make-or-break with no middle ground. “If I mess this up, I’m a complete failure.”
- Catastrophizing – Blowing things out of proportion and imagining the worst case scenario. “If I’m anxious, I’ll completely bomb this and be humiliated.”
- Overgeneralization – Taking one negative instance and applying it universally. “I got nervous once before, so I always choke under pressure.”
- Negative self-talk – Critical inner voice making discouraging statements. “You’re not good enough. You’re going to fail.”
These distorted thoughts ramp up fear and anxiety. The mind plays tricks and makes the situation seem far scarier than reality.
Fear of Physical Symptoms
Physical symptoms of anxiety like increased heart rate and sweating can be scary. People may start to fear these bodily sensations themselves, which only worsens them. It becomes a feedback loop – fear of symptoms actually causing more symptoms.
Previous poor performances or embarrassing situations can also shape future performance anxiety. Failing while nervous can cement the belief that anxiety will always lead to failure. Past choke serves as “evidence” that anxiety is debilitating.
In reality, poor performances often worsen anxiety rather than being caused by it. But it can be easy to conflate the two and develop a fear of anxiety.
Genetics and Personality
Genes also play a role. Research shows that performance anxiety and social anxiety run in families. Additionally, being naturally sensitive or perfectionistic can increase risk. People who are introspective, worry prone, and put high pressure on themselves are more likely to suffer from performance anxiety.
What Are the Effects of Performance Anxiety?
Performance anxiety can significantly hinder functioning and wellbeing:
Ironically, performance anxiety often leads to poor performance – a self-fulfilling prophecy. The immense pressure causes people to “choke” rather than excel:
- Overthinking – Constantly thinking about all the possible failures.
- Loss of focus – Attention is pulled inward to worry rather than outward to the task.
- Mental blocks – Going blank or forgetting information under stress.
- Motor impairment – Shaky hands, voice cracks, or other physical issues.
- Rushed pace – Rushing through things anxiously leading to mistakes.
- Avoidance – Procrastinating, unpreparedness, or avoiding the situation altogether.
Fear and Distress
Being constantly afraid and on edge creates mental anguish. Performance anxiety can really lower quality of life and wellbeing when it’s a chronic issue.
Frequent anxiety and poor performances can damage confidence and self-esteem over time. People may start to doubt their abilities which furthers the cycle.
Avoiding auditions, interviews, tryouts, and other performance scenarios prevents reaching one’s potential. Anxiety causes people to hold themselves back from opportunities.
Shaky hands, voice cracks, rambling thoughts – anxiety symptoms can create a bad impression on others and hurt credibility. First impressions matter.
Social and General Anxiety
Untreated performance anxiety can sometimes bleed into greater social anxiety, apprehension about being judged by others in daily life. It can also lower overall self-efficacy.
What Factors Increase Risk of Performance Anxiety?
Certain factors can make someone more prone to performance anxiety:
- Perfectionism – Holding excessively high standards that increase fear of failure.
- Pessimism – Tendency to expect the worst possible outcome.
- Low self-confidence – Doubting one’s own abilities and being unsure of competence.
- Negative past experiences – Having previously failed or been humiliated when anxious.
- High stakes – Situations where the consequences of failing seem catastrophic.
- Lack of preparation – Not being fully prepared can exacerbate anxiety.
- Intimidating setting – More formal or unfamiliar environments heighten anxiety.
- Competitiveness – Highly competitive contexts lead to greater anxiety.
- Solo activities – Performing alone often causes more anxiety than group activities.
- Novel situations – Completely new performance scenarios with unknowns can heighten anxiety.
- Audience reactions – Fear of judgment or embarrassment from observers.
- Poor self-care – Fatigue, unhealthy diet, dehydration, and stress worsen anxiety.
10 Ways To Break The Cycle Of Performance Anxiety
1. Reframe Your Mindset
- View anxiety as excitement to refocus your outlook.
- Tell yourself you are ready and capable, not unprepared.
- Let go of perfectionism. Focus on doing your best, not flawless.
2. Practice Positive Self-Talk
- Silence the inner critic with encouraging self-talk.
- Remind yourself of past successes. You’ve done this before.
- Affirm “I can do this” to override doubts.
3. Anticipate Logical Worst Case
- Consider the real worst case scenario – it’s likely not as bad as you imagine.
- Recognize you can handle it if the worst did happen.
4. Refocus On The Process
- Shift attention away from outcome and onto preparations.
- Break large tasks down into achievable steps.
5. Visualize Success
- Picture yourself overcoming obstacles and succeeding. Involve all senses.
- Mentally rehearse optimal performance. See yourself excelling.
6. Be Realistic
- Aim for progress, not perfection. Do a little better than last time.
- Celebrate small wins along the way.
7. Manage Time
- Avoid last minute all-nighters. Give yourself ample preparation time.
- Take study breaks to recharge. Don’t burn yourself out.
8. Limit Stimulants
- Reduce intake of stimulating substances like caffeine, energy drinks, etc.
- Stay hydrated and well nourished. Don’t skip meals.
9. Relaxation Exercises
- Do deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or meditation.
- Quiet the mind and decompress stress.
10. Maintain Perspective
- Remember ultimately it’s just one event. It won’t define you.
- Your self-worth remains, regardless of any one outcome.
With consistent practice, these strategies can repattern your thoughts, emotions, and physical reactions to performance situations. Anxiety may not disappear entirely, but its intensity can be diminished so it does not crush your potential. Tiny gains build overtime into greater confidence and resilience.
Frequently Asked Questions
What causes performance anxiety?
Performance anxiety often stems from underlying fears of failure, embarrassment, or not meeting standards. Perfectionistic tendencies, negative self-talk, and high-pressure environments can also trigger performance anxiety.
Is performance anxiety a mental illness?
Excessive performance anxiety that persists and interferes with daily life can potentially be classified as a type of social anxiety disorder. But mild to moderate anxiety about specific events is common and considered normal.
How do you instantly reduce anxiety?
Some quick ways to reduce anxiety in the moment include deep breathing, visualization, positive self-talk, and mindfulness strategies to calm the mind and body. Moving your body can also help burn off the anxious energy.
Can performance anxiety go away on its own?
Sometimes mild performance anxiety will resolve on its own if circumstances change, like pressure easing or gaining greater skills. But recurring, intrusive anxiety likely won’t disappear unless actively managed through lifestyle changes, therapy, or anti-anxiety medication in severe cases.
What happens if performance anxiety goes untreated?
Without treatment, ongoing performance anxiety can worsen and generalize to other areas of life. Some potential long-term effects include chronic stress, low self-esteem, social isolation, depression, and inability to productively perform at school or work. Seeking help is key.
Performance anxiety can happen to anyone, but doesn’t have to hold you back indefinitely. While it may not be possible to eliminate anxiety completely, you can break the debilitating cycle before it undermines your potential. With mindset shifts, stress management skills, positive habits, and gradual exposure to anxious situations, you can take back control. Over time, building confidence in your abilities can allow you to thrive under pressure. What matters most is making progress at your own pace.