Originally published on August 4, 2020
Maybe Not the Performance Anxiety You Were Thinking Of
I’m sure you’ve heard of the term performance anxiety before. Many people have come to associate it with performance in bed and their fears surrounding such a subject. While I definitely could write an article about that concept, such is not the topic of today’s post — at least not directly.
Instead, today, I want to talk about any physical act we must perform, and how getting in our heads over such an act often hinders our performance during it.
If you’ve wrestled with anxiety before, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. These acts are the public speeches, the auditions, the tough workouts — ones where we care deeply about how we perform, and as such, place undue pressure on ourselves to execute things flawlessly.
Thus, no matter the specific activity, the notion is the same: get in your head over such an act, or stress yourself out over it, and you’re in for either some pre-performance jitters, a hindered performance, or both.
The Makings of Performance Anxiety
There are four main things we need for performance anxiety to flourish. The first is an act to be performed. Again, these are your public speeches, interviews, and difficult physical challenges.
The second thing we need is uncertainty over how we’ll perform said act. After all, if we knew we’d break our personal records every time we hit the track, we probably wouldn’t need to think about what we were doing — we’d just get out there and do it.
Thirdly, we need to actually care about our performance. That is, even if we don’t know how we’ll perform, so long as we don’t care how we do, there’s no opportunity for anxiety to rise to the surface; we’ll take any result in stride and keep on moving. And, lastly, we need some form of pressure on ourselves to perform in the fashion we desire.
Take away any one of these four elements, and performance anxiety disappears, or at least morphs into something else. For example, remove the act itself, and you have generalized anxiety or no anxiety at all; take away the uncertainty, and you take away the backbone of fear; strip out your caring, and you have apathy — a place where anxiety wouldn’t dare venture; get rid of the pressure, and all you have is a task you care about, but whose outcome you’re blissfully detached from. If you didn’t already guess, this last one is the one we really care about. No pun intended.
Remove the Pressure, Remove the Performance Anxiety
An example I like to use, and one I think many people can relate to, is running. Sure, not all of us are runners, but you don’t need to be a track star to know what performance anxiety feels like and what we can do to mitigate it. All you need to know is where it typically comes from, and, luckily, we just covered that.
So, when it comes to running, performance anxiety looks a bit like this: we have a difficult run planned (checkmark #1), one that we don’t know how we’ll fare during it (checkmark #2). In addition, for this run, we really want to break our previous personal record (checkmark #3). And, for the cherry on top, we’re starting to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to hunt down that personal best (checkmark #4).
Once we have all the boxes checked, we set the stage for performance anxiety to proliferate. For the anxious mind, this is the danger zone, for when we don’t know how we’ll perform, but we care a lot about that performance, we make ourselves vulnerable to overthinking our task.
That is, we worry about how difficult the run will be and how tired we’ll feel during it. We worry about whether we’ll have the energy to keep going during the most difficult parts of the task, and we question how terrible we’ll feel if we fall short of our desired time.
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’re going to have to remove element number four from our equation — we’re going to have to take the pressure off of ourselves, one way or another.
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. That is, for us anxious folks, the more pressure we put on ourselves over the task we’re set to perform, the worse we’re going to feel. And, sometimes, the worse we actually perform, as a result. Thus, it seems that, in order to make ourselves feel better, we have no choice but to dial back that pressure a bit.
The simplest way for us to do this is to “trick” ourselves into carrying out our anxiety-provoking tasks, if possible. To keep my example going, when I’m set to embark on a tough run in the coming days, I purposely don’t plan it. I also don’t put any parameters on my performance. Instead, I simply acknowledge the fact that I have to go for a 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.
More importantly, not once do I say to myself during my run, “You’ve got to keep this pace,” or, “You need to break a certain time, overall.” Instead, I just get out on the road and start moving. Heck, sometimes, I even tell myself that I can go at whatever pace I want, for the entire time.
And, do you know what the funny thing is about that approach? Once I feel no pressure at all, and once my body is finally warmed up, I almost always feel compelled to run faster anyway. And, more often than not, I end up finishing with a pretty good time because I have zero anxious energy holding me back, zero blocks in my body that I need to push out before I can move quickly.
The key here is that I get my mind and body to believe I’m just going on a normal run — I almost trick them, so to speak, because that’s all I’m really doing. This makes the prospect of the task much more tolerable. Then, when I’m ready, I slowly dial up the intensity, assuming I feel like doing so. But I can also not do that, because that’s okay too.
Counterintuitively, it’s this “no pressure” attitude that frees me to run without any restrictions, and it’s that same lack of pressure that typically helps me achieve the outcome I originally set my pressure-filled sights on in the first place.
Though I certainly love this strategy, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that it can be hard to implement at times. There are two main reasons for this, and they are as follows:
The first is that, unlike runs, not all fear-inducing tasks in our lives can be performed at the drop of a hat. With a run, we can just get up off the couch when we please and jump into the task. Such is not the case with speeches, interviews, and the like.
Secondly, so many of us feel that when we don’t put pressure on ourselves, we’re becoming apathetic and giving up our control over the situation in front of us. We anxious folks hate that sort of thing.
But, in reality, we’re simply removing the pressure from the situation, not our desire to succeed. In addition, when we relinquish that control and relax into the situation in front of us, we often find, counterintuitively, the poise required to perform quite well. And that’s the key to overcoming performance anxiety.
The thing I have to stress, however, and it’s a slightly unsettling one, is that we need to seriously be okay with not performing well, should that happen. If we aren’t, that pressure can easily reappear.
Again, this wouldn’t mean we don’t want to succeed, just that we’d be okay with that possibility. And we’d be okay with that possibility because we know we’ll eventually get to where we want to go, one way or another. Sure, it may take more than one run, speech, or audition to get there, but get there we will, and our attitude, beliefs, and approach reflect that.
Moreover, and somewhat perplexingly, it’s this willingness to fail that often helps us perform better than we would if we actually burdened ourselves with tons of that pressure. For when we grow less attached to the task in front of us, we treat it as any other thing we have to do during our day. We don’t build it up in our minds, we don’t get in our heads over it, and we don’t worry about how it will go.
We just get out there and do it, and that seamless, present performance is exactly what helps us succeed in the first place. It’s also the same strategy I invite you to try out the next time you find yourself feeling the heat of performance anxiety.
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:
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