Before he became a civil rights icon, Mahatma Gandhi struggled with public speaking anxiety. Barbra Streisand experienced stage fright at the height of her career. Sometimes, otherwise expert or talented people will find themselves in a high-pressure situation and underperform because of performance anxiety. This is true in every area of performance, from stepping to the line to take a free throw, to taking a high stakes test, to the big presentation for the board that has been keeping you up at night.
To understand how to overcome performance anxiety, it’s first important to understand what it is. Most people have experienced the way that a person can lock up, lose a train of thought, or totally forget how or even what it is you’re supposed to be doing. But it’s more than just freezing up. Psychologist Sian Beilock says that performance anxiety is a pressure that compromises procedural and explicit memory. Procedural memory is what you remember of the mechanics of an action, while explicit memory is recalling specific details and information needed for a task or question.
Performance anxiety in the office, in the classroom, or on stage isn’t any different than performance anxiety is for an athlete or an executive presenting to their clients. The setting may be different, but the loss of memory, potential to choke, or the failure to implement the strategies or techniques that you’ve spent so much time practicing are all the results of the same mechanism behind what an athlete might experience. So what do we do about it? How do we overcome those feelings? Here are a few ideas and proven strategies to overcome performance anxiety.
- Focus on the outcome, not the mechanics. Oftentimes, we will get in our own heads and be so focused on the mechanics of what we’re trying to accomplish that we lose sight of the goal. Especially in high-stakes scenarios, focusing too much on the minutiae of what you’ve practiced can result in making easy mistakes. Remaining relaxed in your thinking will help you remain broad in your approach and remember how to implement everything you’ve practiced leading up to the big day.
- Write down your worries and concerns. “Writing about worries before taking an exam dilutes their negative impact on students with test anxiety,” Beilock says, “in essence downloading them from mind so they’re less likely to pop up in the moment and distract them.” In a 2011 study conducted with 9th grade students, Beilock and co-author Gerardo Ramirez found that, all things being equal, students who practiced this method scored on average half a grade higher on tests than similar students who did not write about their worries. Taking some time to write down what is making you feel anxious is a great starting point to overcoming performance anxiety. Executives should consider trying this the next time they are prepping for a high-stakes board presentation.
- Focus your attention away from your anxiety. Find something to distract yourself from the anxiety. Meditation and mindfulness can help train the mind not to focus on distractions and to remain calm. Frank Diaz, a professor of music education at Indiana University, found in a recent study that students who practiced meditation on a regular basis were significantly less prone to music performance anxiety. This is a coping mechanism that takes practice, so don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work the first time. Even short of meditation, thinking about something totally separate from the task at hand—be it a game, a song, or anything else that will distract you—can help to reduce performance anxiety.
- Or, interpret your anxiety as excitement. If you’re someone who finds it near impossible to lower your heart rate or distract yourself from nervous thoughts, try putting a positive spin on your feelings. In a 2013 study by Alison Wood Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School, subjects enhanced their public speaking performance by reappraising the physiological and neurological symptoms of their nervousness. Prior to a stressful speech, subjects were instructed to say aloud either “I am excited” or “I am calm”. Individuals who proclaimed “I am excited” were judged by their audience to be more confident, more persuasive, and more competent than the latter group. It turns out you can use that adrenaline for good!
- Make your practice as real as possible. As you prepare, simulate the real environment as much as possible. If you are only practicing your presentation in the mirror, then you aren’t exposing yourself to the pressure that comes from the attention with influence and decision making responsibilities. You might find yourself doing very well in the mirror, but struggling to effectively deliver when this new external pressure is being applied. The closer you can get to the experience of the real thing, the better prepared you’ll be.
When it comes down to it, practice is the best way to acclimate yourself to the pressure of a high stakes performance. And taking that practice to the next level by simulating the real environment as closely as possible is going to help you do even better. As you acclimate more and more to the pressures surrounding your performance, the better you’ll perform when it really counts.