As soon as you set foot on stage, you suddenly feel a rush of overwhelming emotions. Your brain freezes. Time stops. You can feel your hands sweating and your pulse racing. Facing a vast audience can generate feelings of fright that hinder our ability to perform well, perhaps because being the center of attention and having all eyes on us can be stressful. No matter how well-prepared you are, your nerves can get the best of you before a major performance. Not only do musicians and public speakers experience performance anxiety where they worry about their ability to perform a specific task, but so do athletes and students.
Experiences of performance anxiety vary from one person to another. Some may experience mild nervousness before giving a speech or doing a recital due to fear of being judged in case of failure, whereas others may have panic attacks from the mere thought of performing. Regardless of the cause, some strategies can be used to cope with what prevents us from delivering our best performance.
Nearly any situation can trigger performance anxiety, from competing in a sports competition, to taking an academic exam, to parking your car while someone is watching. People who aren’t normally anxious can suffer from performance anxiety. This anxiety is a state; that is, an emotion felt by a well-balanced person with no particular susceptibility to anxiety disorder as a reaction to a stressful situation. State anxiety is how stressful you perceive a situation to be, whereas trait anxiety is how stressed out you tend to be about everything in general.
The degree to which we experience performance anxiety is determined by the physiological responses stemming from emotions, as well as cognitive and behavioral factors. In other words, how the speaker feels, thinks, and acts regarding public speech or performance significantly influences his or her ability to speak publicly or perform.
Symptoms of Performance Anxiety
Feelings of fear and anxiety can arise for various reasons that range from mild social anxiety to the mere thought of performing in public. These emotions arouse the autonomic nervous system that is intended for our bodies to fend off potentially threatening stimulus. This particular arousal triggers symptoms that may undermine your performance, such as:
- increased heart rate
- sweaty palms
- shortness of breath
- dry mouth
Having to perform in major events can activate the “fight-or-flight” response. Basically, your body responds the exact same way it would react to danger and attack.
Stop Saying “Calm Down”
How many times have you been told “relax, try to calm down” when you were faced with a stressful situation? Or how many times have you tried to calm yourself down? When we don’t know how to deal with the situation, we have this strong urge to go for this advice, hoping it would work. But it doesn’t.
The reason why such advice don’t work is because it’s difficult to find strategies to calm down. Words aren’t magic wands that make the anxiety disappear in a split of a second. Fortunately, there are some techniques that can be used to help redirect your negative thoughts, beliefs, images, and predictions about performing in public.
How Can We Actually Calm Down?
One common mistake people often do is attempt to get rid of the anxiety completely, rather than seek to get around with it. Getting hyped up is certainly more effective than trying to calm yourself down, as it’s much easier to convert intense emotions such as anxiety into excitement rather than preventing it. Preventing it is a long shot, because feelings of anxiety and calmness are complete opposites whereas feelings of anxiety and excitement are much closer.
Reappraisal is the conversion technique that describes how a person can reevaluate a potentially emotion-eliciting situation in a way that changes its emotional impact. One does not change the surroundings that are causing negative emotions, but instead, tries to alter understanding of the circumstances.
Findings suggest that reappraisal of anxiety to excitement is effective. In a study done by Alison Wood Brooks, participants who self-talked about being excited just before the assigned task significantly outperformed those who talked about being nervous or calm, or were told to remain calm. The appraisals of our inner states are flexible, so it’s feasible to shift our mindset from nervousness to excitement. This is important because the ways we interpret our internal states can have profound effects on emotion, physiology, and behavior.
Reappraisal is one of the various emotional regulation strategies out there. Others include:
- Situation selection: a person’s ability to avoid circumstances that might lead to anger, anxiety, or sadness. For example, avoiding a certain type of venue due its infrastructure that causes one to feel anxious.
- Situation modification: the use of methods to alter the environment to reduce negative emotions.
Some performers develop creative techniques to deal with their performance anxiety using situation modification. An ideal example would be that of Carly Simon, who instructs theaters to turn on house lights to reduce the spotlight’s focus on her.
- Attentional deployment: refers to ways to make someone less aware of the circumstances that spark a negative emotion. Distraction is an example. Some musicians focus obsessively on a single fan in the audience who seems to be having a good time.
Does Nervousness Have Any Purpose?
Some level of nervous energy is good. People perform best not when they are totally calm nor too stressed, but somewhere in the middle. The optimal level will vary among different kinds of people and the task at hand. A researcher who is trying to focus must not aim for total relaxation, as he or she most probably will fall asleep. Similarly, an athlete shouldn’t be so psyched up, as he might make bad decisions.
The Bottom Line
Performance anxiety can be elicited by any situation where you want to deliver your best performance but you are worried about your ability to do it. Your mentality is just as important as your ability when it comes to delivering a speech or scoring a goal. If it isn’t properly managed, performance anxiety can overwhelm the most skilled.
Obsessing over calming down doesn’t work. If you suffer from extreme nerves before a performance, tell yourself that the sweaty palms and racing heart are a positive sign because they signify excitement. You’re lucky to be here and to have this opportunity to prove how good you are. The ideal level of arousal falls somewhere in the middle, and skilled performers adjust it depending on the context of the performance.
You can always learn to deal with stress better before performing. It takes a bit of motivation to alter your mindset, and repurpose performance anxiety into an enthusiastic, winning performance.