In today’s challenging economic times, performance anxiety is more prevalent than ever. Competition is fierce, and the need to perform well in front of an audience is often crucial for getting or keeping a job.
This means you may be more nervous than ever when having to perform, whether that means making a sales presentation or interviewing for a job.
Your goal is not to get rid of all nervousness. Some nervousness can lead to a more inspired, high energy performance.
However, when nervousness crosses into high anxiety, and is accompanied by sweating palms, racing heart, dry throat, and brain freeze, you simply can’t perform your best.
Most people who come to see me with performance anxiety are hoping for a quick fix. They want me to give them a technique that will make their anxiety disappear on the spot. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
This is because performance anxiety is usually a multi-level problem that is based on many negative past experiences. For this reason, a multi-level approach is needed.
I’ll explain some aspects of this approach in a minute. But first let’s take a look at some common behavioral approaches to performance anxiety, and why they’re not effective as long term solutions.
Why behavioral approaches don’t work
Breathing or breath techniques are frequently recommended for reducing performance anxiety. Deep breathing (sometimes called belly breathing) can foster a relaxation response; however, many people can’t regulate their breathing when they’re already nervous – which can lead to more anxiety!
Mindfulness Practice (which includes mindfulness breathing) has grown in popularity. The primary goal of this practice is to cultivate a calm, non-judging awareness, in which you allow thoughts and feelings to come and go without getting caught up in them.
This awareness is cultivated by focusing on the breath, but not controlling the breath. Each time you notice that the mind has wandered, you gently bring it back to the breath.
This practice when done consistently and regularly can create calm and acceptance. However, it is not a quick fix for performance anxiety, since most people are too distracted or agitated before a performance to use it effectively on the spot.
While behavioral approaches can lead to increased peacefulness and calm if practiced consistently, they don’t address the underlying cause of anxiety – upsetting, illogical thoughts – and therefore often don’t produce consistent long-term relief.
A cognitive approach to performance anxiety
Most people believe that the stressful event –the interview, presentation, or audition –causes their anxiety. However, research has shown that most anxiety stems from the way you think about an event, rather than the event itself.
In addition, your thoughts about a stressful event are often distorted and illogical – making them even more likely to trigger the negative feelings that underlie anxiety.
Start with your negative thoughts
Conquering your performance anxiety begins with identifying your upsetting, illogical thoughts about the stressful event and replacing them with more realistic, balanced thoughts. My Mood Switch form makes this process easy and efficient; however, you can easily get started with just a paper and pencil. (I’ll be explaining the steps below.)
This technique can be used days, or even hours, before a performance to reduce anxiety. With practice, many people find that they begin automatically counteracting their negative thoughts as they arise, which helps ward off anxiety before it takes hold.
Incorporate mental rehearsal
Sometimes, the Mood Switch process is enough to help people overcome their performance anxiety. But, as I mentioned earlier, a multi-dimensional approach is often needed to achieve complete relief.
The next step involves mentally rehearsing your performance while in a deeply relaxed state. A guided imagery recording can help you achieve this level of relaxation. (Some people require the assistance of a counselor to guide them into deep relaxation).
Once relaxed, you visualize the presentation or interview going exactly as you intended, from start to finish. The more you practice this mental rehearsal, the more deeply it will be imprinted in your mind.
Give a live performance to someone you trust
The final step is to practice your performance in a live, non-threatening setting. This is often accomplished with the help of a trusted friend, counselor, or life coach. Some organized groups, such as Toastmasters or college career departments, also offer opportunities to practice live.
Dana’s job interview
My client, Dana, used the steps above to overcome her intense anxiety before a job interview. She had been out of work for over two years, and was desperate to land a job.
This, of course, added to her nervousness, as she anticipated having to do an extra good job of convincing an employer that she was a qualified candidate.
To begin, Dana and I worked together to uncover her upsetting, negative thoughts about the interview. Some of her thoughts were:
They’ll think I’m too old.
They’ll see how nervous I am.
I’ll be too nervous to think or talk clearly.
Through discussion, Dana noticed that her thoughts contained several distortions. She saw that she was only focusing on her perceived negative qualities and discounting any positive qualities about herself.
She was also engaging in black and white thinking. She believed she’d be highly nervous the entire interview and not be able to think or talk clearly at any time during the interview. There was no in-between.
Finally she also believed that she “should” act cool, calm, and collected during the interview. There was no room for imperfection.
Next, it was time for Dana to create more realistic, helpful thoughts to counteract her negative thoughts. Here’s what she came up with.
I’m older than many candidates, but that doesn’t mean I’m too old for the job.
I’m young at heart and have lots of energy and motivation – that’s what they’ll notice more than my age.
The more I practice, the less nervous I’ll be.
They may notice I’m nervous, but they’ll also notice my smile, my ability to listen,and my enthusiasm.
I might be nervous at the beginning, but I’ll relax as the interview goes on and be able to think and speak just fine.
It’s natural to be a little nervous. I don’t have to be perfect.
Over the course of two weeks, Dana mentally rehearsed the interview, visualizing herself smiling and relaxed and sharing her thoughts easily and enthusiastically. She also practiced “live” by answering interview questions posed by a former co-worker.
By the big day, Dana was more determined than nervous. Later, she told me that although she felt quite nervous for the first five minutes or so, she relaxed fairly quickly and thought she came across as enthusiastic and competent.
She also said that even if she didn’t get the job, she felt optimistic that she’d perform well at future interviews.
If you have a stressful performance coming up, take these three steps to get your anxiety under control.
- Identify your upsetting, illogical thoughts about the event and counteract them with more realistic, balanced thoughts. Be sure to write your thoughts down, so you can read them aloud.
2. Mentally rehearse the performance while in a deeply relaxed state.
3. Give a “live” performance in a non-threatening, supportive environment.
Of all the steps, the most important is uncovering your thoughts and counteracting them – especially if you’re short on time. This one, powerful step will quickly help you realize you have less to be anxious about than you thought.