Performance Anxiety, Causes and Solutions


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by Jayaram V

It is normal and human to experience anxiety in situations when you are about to perform a critical task or when you are going to face some form of scrutiny or evaluation for your knowledge, ability, suitability or qualification. For example, most people experience anxiety before attending an examination or an interview, or giving a speech to an audience. People may also experience anxiety while going on a date or proposing to their marriage partners or during sexual intercourse. The monthly, quarterly or half yearly performance reviews also trigger similar feelings in people when they attend them.

Mild to medium levels of anxiety are common in such situations according to their severity or importance. However, some may experience severe or excessive anxiety, even if the situation does not warrant. They unrealistically overreact to situations due to internal reasons rather than external causes. This may happen when people are excessively obsessed with acceptance or other people’s approval, or when they are too judgmental about themselves and their performance and seek perfection in everything they do. Such unhealthy behavior may in turn be triggered by low self-esteem, negative self-talk.

Those who have an unhappy childhood, who had critical parents, peers and teachers, and who were rarely appreciated or who were subjected to constant criticism and disapproval, tend to experience anxiety in critical situations as learned behavior. They may experience anxiety even if there is no apparent cause, since they tend to look at themselves from the negative perspective of their parents and constantly blame themselves.

The childhood feelings of being abandoned, unloved, uncared for and unappreciated reflect in their thinking and behavior as they judge themselves negatively or blame themselves even for other people’s faults. They regard themselves in the same way just as they were regarded by their parents or guardians and use the same critical standards to measure themselves. In the process, they rarely measure up to themselves and experience excessive anxiety, frustration and unhappiness.

Anxiety during critical times can seriously interfere with a person’s performance as well as effectiveness. It can also create other problems such as forgetfulness, headaches, nausea, stress, self-doubt, etc. Performance anxiety can also affect a person’s sexual life as well as relationship with sexual partners. Stage fright is a perfect example of performance anxiety which may seriously interfere with the performance of artists, musicians, motivational speakers, sportsmen, athletes, actors and so on. Increased pulse rate, dry mouth, shaking hands and legs, palpitations, sweating and nausea, these are a few symptoms of performance anxiety.

Dealing with performance anxiety

How can anyone deal with the problem of performance anxiety? Here are a few important suggestions.

1. Prepare well: A good preparation will boost your confidence and reduce your anxiety. Do adequate homework to master the basics and do a few trial runs or rehearsals before you undertake the real task.

2. Accept yourself: If you are not happy with yourself, you are bound to agree with any criticism that comes your way. Learn to accept yourself, with all your positive and negative points and forgive yourself for your failures, weaknesses, mistakes and imperfections.

3. Stop looking for approval: You cannot always make other people happy or earn their approval. You do not live for others, while it is true that you should have healthy and fulfilling relationships in life. Do what you think is best, and let other people draw their own conclusions.

4. Dispute negative self-talk: Negative self-talk lowers your self-esteem and confidence and makes you doubt your abilities and competence which can lead to performance anxiety at critical times. Dispute your negative and judgmental thoughts about yourself and counter them with positive affirmations.

5. Focus on doing the task: The Bhagavadgita gives an excellent advice. Overcome the negativity, fear and desire for perfection. Focus on the task and do your part, leaving the result to God or fate. When you focus on the task, you will naturally do better as you minimize worries and distractions.

6. Learn from your mistakes: Everyone makes mistakes. It is only by trying and by making mistakes that we progress in the world. Neither perfection nor excellence is achieved in a single day. Perfection is a process rather than a goal. Therefore, do not be afraid of taking risks or making mistakes. Use them to know about yourself and improve yourself.

7. Accept what cannot be controlled: Much of what happens to you is outside your control. The outcome of what you do is also largely beyond your control. You may impress the people in your life or influence them to some extent, but you cannot take them for granted or control their responses. Therefore, know what you can and cannot do, and hope for the best without worrying.

8. Reduce your expectations: The saying that expectations reduce joy is very true. If you have too many expectations from yourself and others, you may experience a lot of stress and anxiety before you begin any important tasks, as you may worry about the outcome or your self-image. Minimize your expectations and make them as realistic as possible by disputing your assumptions.

9. Learn to relax: Performance anxiety is a stressful situation, which can make matters worse by making one feel more stressed. One of the best ways to deal with performance anxiety is to relax and slow down. You can do it by taking deep breaths, pausing in between, paying attention and being in the present. It is also important to take your attention temporarily off the task during preparation and engage in some other activity such as listening to music or watching a movie, etc., so that you will not let stress and anxiety build up in you.

10. Know that anxiety can be helpful too: It is not necessary that performance anxiety is always harmful. Having a little anxiety or stress is conducive to good performance. It can also help one take the matter seriously and focus better upon the task. Therefore, if you feel a little anxious when you are about to perform an important task, consider it normal and continue your preparation without letting that anxiety overwhelm you.

The worst that you can do in critical situations, when you are about to give a performance or impress others in a competitive situation, is to choke and lose your balance and your natural ease. If you have invested enough time and energy to train yourself in a particular area of expertise or accomplishment, you cannot afford to show weakness or lose your strength and fortitude. While some of this behavior may be caused by natural factors such as your genes, some of it can be controlled by learning to cope with pressure and train yourself to work under fear, anxiety and stressful situations.

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