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Friend or foe? Understanding Performance Anxiety

Businessman sitting at his desk

Disclaimer – this blog is for education and information purposes only. It does not constitute individual advice. The information contained in this post may not be applicable or appropriate for everyone. If you think performance anxiety is impacting you, consider seeking individualised support from a qualified health professional.

It’s common to experience some nerves or stress when performing in front of other people. When I use the term performing, I’m talking about things like a big presentation at work, speaking up in front of a room of people, or performing on stage. For people who feel comfortable performing in front of others, they implicitly understand that in order to perform at optimum levels some nerves or stress can actually be helpful! For others, these normal levels of stress or nerves may become performance anxiety and get in the way of being able to perform in the way they would like.

What is performance anxiety?

Performance anxiety is the fear that some people experience when they are in performance-based situations where they may be evaluated or judged. For some, the fear of embarrassing themselves may also lead to intense feelings of anxiety. Those experiencing performance anxiety may avoid the situation altogether or endure it with intense anxiety (at times experiencing panic attacks). Someone with performance anxiety may engage in excessive worry in the lead up to, during and following the performance-based situation. They worry about failure, loss of control and may judge themselves harshly for their performance. 

Stress: Friend or Foe?

Not all stress is bad stress. For example, elite athletes often describe having pre-game jitters before their match. Those who perform at elite levels are able to use these nerves to help achieve higher levels of performance. They understand that these jitters are part of their body’s way of providing additional resources to perform at optimum levels. In their book “Stress, Appraisal and Coping”, Lazarus and Folkman (1984) explain that how we interpret or react to an event can have a more powerful impact on our level of stress than the event itself. If we see the stress response as something negative and to be feared, we are more likely to experience the negative consequences of stress. Conversely, if we consider stress as a positive force that can help us in our performance we are more likely to experience the positive consequences of stress 

The Benefits of Stress

According to the inverted U hypothesis, there’s an optimal level of stress where performance peaks (Arent & Landers, 2013; Awada et al., 2024). Too little stress may result in low motivation or boredom. An example of this is where we may find it difficult to complete or procrastinate over tasks which are routine or simple. On the other hand, too much stress may trigger feelings of anxiety which can interfere with performance. Experiencing moderate levels of stress (also known as eustress, or positive stress) may support us to achieve peak performance. Finding the right balance is key to achieving peak performance.

The Performance Zone

When we experience optimal levels of stress we may enter what is known as the performance zone (Awada et al., 2024; Jarinto, 2010). This is the goldilocks zone where the stress we experience is not too much or too little, it’s just right. Whilst in the performance zone we may experience peak performance and productivity, and heightened levels of focus. Whilst in this zone, people often notice they become mindfully engaged with the task, are less self-conscious, they become less aware of distractions, and may even lose time. Entering the performance zone requires finding the optimal balance of stress. Achieving this balance will vary from person to person and may involve strategies such as visualisation, adopting a growth mindset, or stress-management techniques. Learning new strategies and finding ways to achieve the right balance of stress may help to attain optimal performance.

Five signs you may be experiencing performance anxiety

  • Avoidance – one of the more common behaviours associated with anxiety is avoidance. Those with performance anxiety often attempt to avoid performance-based situations where they fear they may be judged or embarrass themselves.
  • Enduring performance-based situations with intense anxiety – if the situation can’t be avoided, those with performance anxiety may proceed with the situation. This often leads to intense feelings of fear and anxiety which are experienced before and during the situation.
  • Mind goes blank – when under threat, one of the ways in which our brain may respond is with a freeze response. Those with performance anxiety may notice they forget what they were saying or doing, lose track of conversations, and find it challenging to get back on track.
  • Difficulties focusing on the task  – those experiencing performance anxiety may turn their attention inward and focus overly on the symptoms of anxiety they are experiencing. Conversely, they may also focus excessively on other people as they scan for negative feedback about their performance.
  • Perfectionistic thinking – those with a perfectionistic thinking style often think in terms of pass/fail. Either the task is perfect or they have failed. Rather than enhancing task performance, perfectionistic thinking tends to increase feelings of anxiety and leads to further decreases in performance.

Four ways to manage performance anxiety

  • Practice and Preparation – spending time preparing for the performance-based situation may help to manage feelings of anxiety. The more time we practise something, the more automatic the behaviour becomes. Automatic behaviours are easier to enact when feelings of anxiety increase.
  • Reframe your relationship to stress – assessing the normal stress response we experience in performance-based situations as a negative force, may lead to increased feelings of anxiety. Practice reframing the stress-response as a normal, performance-enhancing force.
  • Start small – Where possible start with situations which create only a moderate level of anxiety. These situations provide a perfect sandbox to test out some new skills in a relatively safe environment. Readiness to tackle situations which cause greater levels of anxiety tends to increase as skills and confidence increase.
  • Learn some new skills – learning new ways to manage anxious feelings or thoughts, may be a helpful step in managing performance anxiety. Investing in opportunities to further build the practical skills required to achieve peak performance may also help to boost confidence. 

Recognising the signs of performance anxiety can be a helpful first step to managing it. By learning new skills and reframing our relationship with stress, many people who experience performance anxiety can learn to overcome the barriers holding them back from peak professional performance. Remember, you’re not alone! If you need support to manage performance anxiety, contact Uplift Psychology to find out how I may be able to help.

References

Arousal, Anxiety, and Performance: A Reexamination of the Inverted-U Hypothesis

Eustress: A Key to Improving Job Satisfaction and Health Among Thai Managers Comparing US, Japanese, and Thai Companies Using SEM Analysis

Stress appraisal in the workplace and its associations with productivity and mood: Insights from a multimodal machine learning analysis.

Lazarus, R., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, Appraisal, and Coping. New York: Springer


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