How Anxiety Affects Performance
You have a huge presentation or a performance tomorrow and you’re scared to death. Your heart races, your palms sweat and you may even feel like you just might literally die. What you’re experiencing are common symptoms of anxiety, an evolutionary stress response to a perceived threat from the external environment. Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time — anxiety has served a protective function in terms of keeping the human race alive and flourishing for thousands of years. In the times of the cavemen, symptoms of anxiety literally helped you stay alive — after all, if the wooly mammoth was chasing you, it was important for your body’s fight-or-flight mechanism to kick in and spur you to flee or stand your ground and fight. But in modern times, that instinct is often on overdrive — things we perceive as threats in our environment aren’t really a matter of life or death, yet we respond, both psychologically and physiologically, as though they were. A performance or presentation, no matter how poorly done, most likely won’t kill you — and yet many of us act as though it will.
Not All Anxiety is Bad
Remember that anxiety isn’t always a detriment. Anxiety can serve a healthy function in small doses — it can help you perform to the best of your abilities by keeping you on your toes and helping you focus. But too much anxiety can severely hinder your performance in almost any area of life, from your career or your relationships to your extracurricular activities. And for some people, anxiety becomes so problematic and unmanageable that they develop anxiety disorders — clinical psychiatric disorders that can make it impossible for them to participate in activities of daily living, such as leaving the house, interacting with others, giving public speeches or meeting new friends. In such cases, medication — at least on a temporary basis — and psychotherapy can help them make changes where they can begin to work on symptoms and improve a sense of self-esteem.
Avoid Anxiety Triggers
Not everyone experiences anxiety from the same sources. You might have an intense, irrational fear of snakes, yet have no problem getting on stage and giving a killer speech. On the other hand, you might know someone, perhaps a talented violinist, who has a pet snake and yet is unable to share her talent with the world because of her overwhelming feelings of stage fright. Becoming aware of and developing insight into your personal anxiety triggers are two of the most important steps you can take to reduce symptoms of anxiety. Identify whether the trigger is a real threat to your well-being — will you die from performing on-stage? Or are you simply afraid of rejection or the critical remarks of others? However, if you do decide that your trigger poses a real threat to your life or well-being, such as being in a building fire, you can avert your feelings of anxiety by deciding to take action, such as by calling 911 and leaving the premises.
Build Your Sense of Self-Worth
Don’t allow yourself to be controlled by your anxiety triggers — you can choose how to respond to perceived threats from the external world. You chose to allow remarks and rejecting attitudes of others to affect you and create your feelings of anxiety, so you can also choose the opposite reaction. Whether you realize it or not, at some point you chose to think, “I’m no good, I’m worthless.” But you can also replace that thought with a healthier, positive thought, such as “I’m worthwhile, I have a lot to offer to the world and I am doing my best.” Recognize your unique gifts and talents and pay attention to your self-talk. Don’t mistake what others say for your own internal voice. Develop a genuine belief that you are worthwhile and that the good opinion of others plays no role in your well-being. You are worthy for who you are. Separate your internal world from what is happening and being said around you. Once you can create this sense of separation, your symptoms of anxiety should start to naturally decrease.