It is Monday morning and you are asked to present a new project that you’ve been working on at the upcoming staff meeting. You suddenly feel your heart racing and your palms sweating at the dreadful thought of presenting in front of your coworkers. Then the weekend comes and the quarterback on your flag football team has come down with the flu. Your coach asks you to step in and play their usual position, which you feel isn’t your strong suit. The thought of filling in makes you feel nauseous as you prepare for the big game.
What do these scenarios have in common? The individual is showing signs of performance anxiety. Better known as “stage fright,” this form of anxiety is associated with presenting information, entertainment, communication, etc., . It is often accompanied with, but not limited to, increased heart rate and pulse, sweating and/or cold palms, shaking limbs, nausea, blurry vision or difficulty breathing. This form of anxiety is rooted in the desire to want to perform well. Performance anxiety can occur at work, during sporting or performance events, while making a general announcement at a family gathering, and even during sexual activity. This internal pressure can feel overwhelming and may prevent you from performing the way you had originally envisioned.
Performance Anxiety Can Happen to Anyone
Personally, I have experienced performance anxiety. Chances are you’ve experienced performance anxiety as least once in your life. As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I often put a lot of pressure on myself to perform well. Whether it’s in my professional or personal life, I can easily work myself up before an event because I want so desperately for everything to go well. As someone who also experiences social anxiety, presenting information or putting on performances is scary for me, and I usually have to use coping skills before the event to help get me through it. As a dance instructor, I work with students who experience stage fright on a regular basis. These students spend months in class learning technique and dance routines for a final summer performance. I’ve seen the most confident, talented students in class get on stage only to have forgotten their entire dance routine. I’ve coached students through breathing exercises before going on stage to help calm their nerves when they suddenly felt like they couldn’t breathe and wouldn’t be able to perform. The pressure to do well often squanders their joy of performance, which can be devastating to the performer and those who support them.
Though some people are aware that they suffer from performance anxiety, it is not always an ongoing condition and sometimes presents itself at the last minute before an anticipated event. This can cause individuals to feel incompetent and helpless when it suddenly occurs. Performance anxiety is something no one wants to experience, but there are ways to help prevent and manage anxiety symptoms when they arise.
Plan and Prepare for Upcoming Events
We’ve heard the saying: “When you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Try to plan ahead if you have an important event coming up. Anxiety is fueled by fear of the unknown. If you can eliminate as many unknowns by planning out what you will say during a presentation or practicing before a big performance, this will help alleviate stress.
On the flip side, no matter how much we plan, sometimes things just don’t go as expected. If that happens, be flexible. Being able to regroup when things don’t go right will greatly help with performance anxiety. Take it from a perfectionist: nothing is ever really perfect. Do not pressure yourself to try to create that perfection. If something goes wrong, it’s OK. You are human and you do not have to hold yourself to standards of perfection. The more flexible you can be, the better you’ll be able to manage performance anxiety.
Practice Encouraging Mantras
Be your own cheerleader. Encourage yourself through positive sayings like “I am intelligent” and “I am courageous.” Positive self-speech can help ease the anxiety that’s telling you that you can’t accomplish whatever you’re preparing for. Get excited about what you are presenting. Studies have shown that getting excited about upcoming events rather than trying to remain calm has helped with performance anxiety. Think about and practice saying all the things that will go right versus dreading all the things that could go wrong.
We Are Better Together
Most of us have experienced performance anxiety in our lives. Sharing feelings of anxiety with others can help calm fears. When my dancers come to me and tell me that they can’t perform because they are too scared, they often walk away relieved just knowing that they have someone validating that they can do it. Having support during a performance anxiety episode makes a huge difference. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt overwhelmed and scared of a task at hand. In those moments, verbalizing my fears and then counteracting those fears with positive mantras has alleviated a lot of my stress. If pep talks to myself don’t help, I reach out to someone else who can help me point out the positives. We are better together.
Performance anxiety can range in intensity, from feeling nervous before an important test to being physically ill and unable to complete a presentation. If anxiety in general is interfering with your ability to complete daily functions, such as doing well at work or school, I encourage you to seek help from Discovery Mood & Anxiety Program. Working with a professional therapist can help you identify coping skills to manage anxiety and live a less stressful life.
April Cox is a permanency specialist II at Professional Family Care Services in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She is passionate about the mental health of individuals and families and prides her work on providing practical ways to promote mental health wellness. April has a BA in sociology and has worked as a therapeutic staff support, family-based counselor, and drug and alcohol counselor before transitioning to child welfare, where she helps foster children and foster families process past traumas. April is passionate about the arts and spends her evenings teaching dance classes to all ages.