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What is Performance Anxiety?

Jonathan Riley

“I just give myself permission to suck…I find this hugely liberating.” – John Green

It seems that performance anxiety has become increasingly more common in our society. I am frequently visited by teens, students, and adults who struggle to cope with the pressure of ‘being the best’. Given that our ever-changing world places a premium on competition and spectacular results, it’s no surprise that many people find it difficult to cope with the constant pressure of the need to be the best.

Performance anxiety is fear about one’s ability to perform a specific task. People who suffer from performance anxiety may be concerned about failing a task before it has even begun. They may believe that failure will lead to humiliation, rejection or shame. While performance anxiety can occur with any task. Most people experience some degree of nervousness or anxiety before giving a presentation or performing in front of others. However, for some people, even the thought of performing can cause them to suffer from panic attacks.

Nearly any situation can cause performance anxiety, from competing in a sporting event, to taking a test, to parallel parking while your friends are watching. Performance anxiety can affect people who are not normally anxious. Negative self-talk, such as “I can’t do this,” “I’ll never remember my routine,” or “everyone will hate me if I mess up,” can lead to feelings of anxiety. As people begin to make mistakes during their presentation, performance anxiety becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The person may believe that their mistakes are proof that they are not “good enough,” causing even more anxiety.

Performance anxiety is not a mental disorder, but rather a normal reaction to a stressful situation. The pressure of being the centre of attention and having everyone’s attention focused on you can be stressful. The body reacts to this situation in much the same way that it would to being attacked. The body’s “fight-or-flight” response kicks in, which is why symptoms of performance anxiety are similar to symptoms of real danger. As a result, people who suffer from performance anxiety have a more difficult time learning, remembering, and thinking clearly. But for some people, performance anxiety interferes with their ability to perform at all. Worst of all, performance anxiety can have a negative impact on a person’s self-esteem and confidence.

Common symptoms of performance anxiety include:

  • Racing pulse and rapid breathing
  • Trembling hands, knees, and voice
  • Dry mouth and tight throat
  • Becoming numb, distant and withdrawn
  • Feeling sick or having stomach cramps
  • Excessive sweating, heart palpitations, chills, and elevated blood pressure
  • Shaking and nausea
  • Wanting out of the performance
  • Dreading the performance, worrying endlessly about it
  • Increased errors during the performance

Performance anxiety can also have a negative impact on a person’s relationship and sex life. Feeling anxious before sex is normal. However, feeling so nervous that a person is unable to have or enjoy sex may cause many people to be self-conscious, self-critical, worried, and tense. Moreover, anxiety about sexual performance or pleasing a partner can lead to sexual dysfunction. When a person feels unworthy or incapable of meeting a partner’s sexual expectations, they may experience feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.

Perhaps because it is so normal to feel anxious before a performance, people with performance anxiety often do not seek help. They may feel embarrassed and believe they should be able to cope. If their career is based around performing, they may not want to make others aware of their condition for fear of public scrutiny or appearing ‘weak’ in front of others. It is common for those suffering from performance anxiety to turn to drugs or alcohol to help them manage their symptoms and perform. There are numerous stories about celebrities who have developed substance abuse problems as a way to cope with the constant and extreme stress of having to perform.

Finally, the first step towards overcoming performance anxiety is confronting your fears and vulnerabilities, accepting yourself for who you are, and not feeling the need to prove yourself to others. Keep in mind that nobody is perfect, nobody expects you to be perfect, and it is OK to make mistakes.

My Practice provides affordable counselling and all profits are reinvested into the organisation to continue providing low-cost counselling and mental health services to our community. If you’re interested in scheduling a free 15-minute consultation with us, book online today.


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