Originally published on August 4, 2020
A Different Kind of Performance Anxiety
I’m sure you’ve heard the term performance anxiety (PA) before — most likely as it pertains to the bedroom. Though I’d imagine some of us could benefit from a discussion on that topic, it’s not the subject of today’s post — at least not directly.
Instead, in this article, I want to look at performance anxiety more broadly and cover multiple types of stress-inducing tasks and how getting in our heads over them can hold us back. These tasks are your public speeches, auditions, strenuous workouts, and the like — ones where we care deeply about the outcome and, as such, place undue pressure on ourselves to execute flawlessly.
So, with that approach in mind, let’s dive on in.
The Makings of Performance Anxiety
There are four main things that must be present for performance anxiety to appear. The first is an act — concrete or hypothetical — to be conducted.
The second is uncertainty over how we’ll fare during that act. After all, if we knew we’d break our personal 100m dash record every time we hit the track, we probably wouldn’t think all that much about it — we’d just get out there and do it.
The third requirement is that we must actually care about our performance or the outcome of said task. If we don’t care, anxiety can’t get to us because there’s no threat of perceived failure or doom; we’d take any result in stride and keep moving.
And finally, there must be some sort of pressure on us, internal or external, to perform in the fashion we desire.
Take away any of these four elements, and PA shrinks down in size or morphs into something else entirely.
For example, if we remove the act itself, we have generalized rather than performance-related anxiety. Alternatively, if we eliminate the uncertainty surrounding its outcome, we experience something akin to confidence.
If we instead (somehow) remove the fact that we care about the situation, we get apathy, and anxiety wants nothing to do with that. And finally, if we get rid of the pressure we put on ourselves, we repaint the task in front of us as one with an outcome we care about but from which we’ve calmly detached ourselves.
If you didn’t already guess, this last one is the one we care about most — not only because it helps us feel good but also because it’s typically the only feasible one.
Remove the Pressure, Remove the Performance Anxiety
To describe this sort of thing in action, I like to use the example of running competitively. After all, athletic endeavors are an angst-associated subject to which many of us can relate. But even if you’re not a runner, don’t worry — you’ll still be able to extract the full value here if you connect whatever it is that brings you performance anxiety to the discussion.
When it comes to running, PA could manifest a bit like this: we have a challenging run planned (requirement #1), one during which we don’t know how we’ll fare (requirement #2). Additionally, for the run in question, we really want to break our personal record (requirement #3). And, for the cherry on top, we’ve told ourselves that if we don’t hunt down that personal best, it’ll ruin our month (requirement #4).
With all the prerequisites in place, we set the stage for performance anxiety to arise. For the fear-inclined mind, this is the danger zone; when we don’t know what our outcome will be but care immensely about it, we indirectly signal to our brains that not performing in the fashions we desire is a threat to our happiness. In turn, our bodies sound the alarms, prompting us to ruminate over every last detail surrounding the task before us.
There’s one simple way we can get ourselves out of these task-related rumination loops, and, spoiler alert, I think you already know what it is. That’s right; somehow, we’ll have to remove element number four from our equation by taking the pressure off ourselves.
Tricking Yourself Into a Great Performance
I always say that anxiety, and the strategies required for escaping it, are counterintuitive. The case is no different here; even though we sometimes think that high stakes, heavy amounts of pressure, and mental rehearsal will help us perform better, they tend to do the opposite. And that’s not even considering how they make us feel beforehand. Thus, our only viable approach is to dial back that pressure a bit.
The most straightforward way to do this — and I realize it’s not always possible — is to “trick” ourselves into carrying out our anxiety-provoking tasks. Here’s what I mean by that.
To keep my previous example going, when my training schedule tells me it’s time for a tough run in the coming days, I purposely don’t plan it. Nor do I put any time requirements or “must haves” on my performance. Instead, I simply acknowledge that I have to go for that run at some point during the next few days, and the moment I feel good enough to do it, I throw on my running shoes and let it happen.
And, do you know what the funny thing is about this approach? Once I’m warmed up on that run, I almost always go faster than planned because there’s no pressure or anxiety-related energy holding me back.
The key here is that I get my mind and body to believe I’m just going on a regular run. I trick them into thinking that because, until I actually take things up a notch — which I also don’t have to do if I don’t want — that’s all that’s really happening.
A Few Words of PA Caution
Though I value and employ this strategy myself, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that it can sometimes be hard to implement. There are two main reasons for this, and they are as follows.
The first is that, unlike runs, we can’t perform all fear-inducing tasks at the drop of a hat. Yes, I may be able to get off my couch and lace up my shoes whenever I please, but it’s likely you won’t be able to do the same for, say, an upcoming public speech or interview. That’s a shortcoming here, and I acknowledge that.
The second reason this strategy can be tough to execute is that so many of us feel that if we don’t put pressure on ourselves to perform well, we’re becoming apathetic or weak or giving up our control over the task in front of us. We anxious folks hate that sort of thing.
This is where a simple reframe can come in handy. Rather than looking at things in the fashion I just stated, we could reconnect to the fact that lowering or removing the pressure surrounding the situation in front of us doesn’t indicate we don’t want to succeed. Instead, it simply means we’re tired of approaches that only lead us to more stress and anxiety.
When we adopt this new technique, we put ourselves in better states of mind — ones that counterintuitively unlock the possibility of us performing even better than we previously anticipated. Now that’s what I call winning!
The thing I have to stress, however, and it might be a little frustrating to hear, is that this strategy only works if we’re detached from our desired outcome and okay with the possibility of not performing well. If not, the pressure we think we’ve removed could easily reappear, kicking us back into our PA cycle — and that would be no good.
Again, that wouldn’t mean we don’t want to succeed, just that we’d be at peace with a less-than-desirable result, should things unfold in that fashion. And we’d feel that way because we know we’ll eventually arrive wherever it is we want to go, one way or another. Sure, it may take more than one run, speech, or interview to get there, but we most certainly will, and our attitude, beliefs, and approach reflect that.
The reason this technique works (or can work) is that it takes anxiety-provoking events off the proverbial pedestal. It allows us to treat such tasks as everyday chores, meaning that we don’t build them up in our minds or get in our heads over them — at least not nearly as much as before. And that’s why I invite you to try it out the next time you’re feeling the PA-related heat.
Want Even More Anxiety-Relieving Strategies?
Then grab a copy of my book, Get Out of Your Head: A Toolkit for Living with and Overcoming Anxiety.* It covers many of the topics I discuss in my blog posts, as well as a few new, key frameworks for managing fear. Check it out if you’re looking to level-up your anxiety-alleviating skills.
Or, if you’re not yet ready to jump into the book, head on over to some of my previous articles on managing anxiety:
*Disclaimer: The above link is an affiliate URL, which pays me a small commission when readers make purchases through it.
**Above image designed and owned by Brian Sachetta ©2022