If speaking in front of a crowd, center stage, with all eyes on you, is your definition of a nightmare – you’re not alone.
Or maybe you grew up dreading school presentations for fear of accidentally saying the wrong thing or forgetting your lines.
Performance anxiety is a strong feeling of worry, fear, or negative thoughts relating to accomplishing – or not being able to accomplish – something well.
While it’s most commonly referred to as “stage fright,” performance anxiety can arise in all life situations.
Performance anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling people don’t enjoy experiencing. It can not only hinder day-to-day activities but lower your overall self-esteem and damage your mental health.
Learning how to overcome performance anxiety is entirely possible with the right knowledge, tools, and guidance to assist you.
What Causes Performance Anxiety?
In a nutshell, negative thoughts and pessimistic thinking patterns are the root cause of performance anxiety.
Any situation in which you want to perform at your very best yet worry you’ll fall short can cause this.
Situations as simple as trying to parallel park while your friends watch can trigger the feelings of potentially looking inadequate to your peers. Even famous athletes get performance anxiety. Many people refer to this as “choking under pressure.”
Oftentimes, we’re fully capable of completing the task, i.e., we’ve studied for months for a test, we’ve rehearsed our lines dozens of times, or we’ve played hundreds of basketball games leading up to this moment, yet our excessive worry that somehow we will fail becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and actually can affect our performance in the moment.
Sweaty palms, shakiness, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and dry throat are all symptoms of performance anxiety that can greatly distract us from doing our best.
Types of Performance Anxiety
Performance anxiety is more than just a case of “stage fright.” While this is the most common, there are other types of performance anxiety that can differ from person to person. The symptoms all manifest in different ways depending on what scenario triggers this fight or flight response.
Performers, typically musicians or public speakers, may experience dreaded anxiety associated with being in front of a large crowd. This type of performance anxiety is triggered by fear of humiliation or making a mistake. Symptoms can manifest as trembling speech, stuttering, dry mouth, facial tics, or heart tremors. People who suffer from severe stage fright often may pass up a promotion or leave school due to their excessive fear.
Sexual performance anxiety
While both men and women can experience nervousness or anxiety about time in the bedroom, men are more likely to experience anxiety about their sexual performance. These fears consist of things such as erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, not pleasing their partner, self-esteem/body issues, or an overall fear of sexual activities in general.
Men and women who experience heightened sexual anxiety may release more stress hormones, thus making it much more difficult to relax and enjoy the moment.
Athletic performance anxiety
Due to the precise, coordinated movements athletes need to execute when playing, it’s no surprise many players, at all levels, can experience athletic performance anxiety. Fear of losing, lack of training, a deficit in sleep or nutrition, and excessive pressure to win can all contribute to athletic performance anxiety.
Without proper knowledge on how to overcome performance anxiety in sports, athletes can not only risk losing the game – they can also risk injuring themselves or others.
Have you ever called yourself a bad test taker? As simple as this phrase can seem, there’s more to it than that. Test-taking anxiety can affect nearly 20% of students, ranging from grade school all the way to college.
Anxiety while taking a test is caused by excessive fear of failing, lack of adequate study time, or overall pressure if the stakes are high. Feeling symptoms of test-taking anxiety such as agitation or distress can negatively impact your ability to do well – setting you up for failure before you even start.
Feeling nervous before a job interview is quite common – the stakes are usually high, and someone is about to critique everything you say and how you say it for an extended period of time. However, interview anxiety is an excessive type of anxiety that can interfere with landing a job. Interview anxiety can be overwhelming feelings of worry due to not knowing what to expect. Researching as much as possible about a company beforehand can help calm nerves and set you up to be confident in your answers.
While these are the top 5 types of performance anxiety, it’s by no means limited to just these scenarios. Performance anxiety can happen while performing any task you long to do well in. Fear of failure and lack of self-esteem can play a huge role in how you end up performing.
How to Overcome Performance Anxiety
If you’re someone suffering from performance anxiety, you may be asking yourself how you can take control and move confidently past this uncomfortable feeling. However, it’s not as black and white as it may seem.
Learning how to overcome performance anxiety in sports may look different than learning how to overcome performance anxiety at work.
Since each circumstance is particularly unique, we’ll go over a few ways to cope in each scenario.
1. Stage fright:
- Practice until you can’t practice anymore. Stage fright can become exacerbated if you aren’t fully prepared.
- Limit caffeine intake beforehand.
- Envision the crowd cheering and applauding – imagine the joy you’ll feel after you conquer your fear.
- Take a walk, stretch or move your body as a way to ease anxious feelings.
- Remember that stage fright often peaks right before a performance and dissipates once you begin.
2. Sexual performance anxiety:
- Have open communication with your partner.
- Mindfulness meditation: Learn how to achieve a state of relaxation by calming your thoughts.
- Yoga: There are bedroom yoga poses designed specifically to relieve sexual anxiety. These can be done alone or with a partner.
3. Athletic performance anxiety:
- Practice makes perfect: whether solo or with others, our bodies are wonderous at muscle memory.
- Reduce outside distractions.
- Reframe your anxious thoughts by envisioning your success.
- Remember to get enough sleep the night before.
4. Test-taking anxiety:
- Learn efficient and effective study techniques.
- Establish a pre-exam routine.
- Have a full night's rest the night before.
- Redirect any negative thoughts that may arise.
5. Interview anxiety:
- Avoid caffeine and eat something light beforehand to minimize a growling stomach or any lightheadedness.
- Remember, you can’t control everything but control what you can by preparing: rehearsing with a friend and studying up on the company are two ways.
- Be yourself. As cliche as this may sound, be content knowing that if you don’t get the job, it just wasn’t the right fit for you.
Performance Anxiety Treatment
If these self-care tactics aren’t enough to wash away those uncomfortable feelings of fear and dread – medication and therapy are two ways in which you can reach out to a medical professional for help.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (in which a client is trained to assess and redirect their thoughts) is an evidence-based type of therapy that has been clinically shown to help patients suffering from extreme cases of performance anxiety.
Therapists will use methods such as challenging fearful thoughts and grounding techniques to assist clients in overcoming negative thinking patterns.
In addition, a therapist will help a client feel less stressed by slowly exposing them to a situation that provokes performance anxiety. By using exposure therapy, a counselor can guide the patient to face their fears and come to terms with their irrational thoughts.
For busy athletes or musicians, traditional therapy may not be the best option as they often have busy schedules.
Online therapy is a flexible option for those who have multiple practices per week to attend to or simply those who feel safer in their own homes.
In addition, a huge benefit of online therapy for performance anxiety is the ability to speak to your therapist before a triggering situation. Given that your therapist will have open hours during that time, being able to receive CBT counseling beforehand can greatly improve your mental clarity when the time comes.
The most commonly used medication in treating performance anxiety is Propranolol.
Propranolol is a beta-blocker and has been around for decades, initially for the use of treating heart conditions and migraines.
Instead of other medications like Xanax or Valium, Propranolol doesn’t directly target an area of the brain and tell it to calm down. Instead, it relieves symptoms of performance anxiety such as fast pulse, dry mouth, nausea, dizziness, or shakiness.
When our bodies become stressed out due to anxiety, these extra stress hormones attach themselves to beta receptors anywhere in the body. This is what triggers these different symptoms.
By targeting beta receptors, Propranolol can stop this from taking place.
This is often seen as a much better alternative than the latter because Xanax and Valium both come with a risk of addiction.
You Can Live Free From Performance Anxiety
While performance anxiety can certainly feel debilitating, rest assured knowing that it is easily treatable.
No matter what type of performance anxiety you suffer from, there are ways ranging from at-home care to online counseling in place to assist you.
If you simply want to rid yourself of those pesky performance anxiety symptoms like a racing heart, sweaty palms, and dry mouth, medication may be the best route to take. However, if you want to rid it once and for all and step into the spotlight in confidence, knowing you’ve done the work to assess the root cause, then therapy is the most effective solution.
Online therapy uses the same techniques as in-person therapy, so if you have a busy schedule or feel safer at home, companies such as DoMental have experts ready to assist you.