Performance anxiety plagues me, but now I have some techniques to beat it

We’ve all been there at one time or another. Performance anxiety can affect anyone. But what about the most extreme anxiety that causes us to choke at the worst possible time?

For me, a few days or a week before the Big Exam, the Do-or-Die Presentation, or the event in which all the puzzle pieces need to come together in meticulous fashion, anxiety manifests itself in a dream. I find myself on stage and all set for a dance recital, but fear obliterates the carefully choreographed sequence of steps as I have practiced them. It drowns out the guiding hand of the music, leaving me utterly unable to move. I am paralyzed, staring into stage lights. Anxiety has killed my performance. I am the poster child for choking under pressure.

Here’s how another version of the dream plays out:

I am amply prepared for the presentation. When I reach the podium I gaze out at the crowd. My throat tightens, my tongue goes dry, my mind becomes a blank. A ringing sounds in my ears and a slight vertigo shake any sense of physical orientation. Performance anxiety strikes again.


Choking Under Pressure

In reality? I won’t say that I never mess up at the most critical moment. However, I rarely find myself completely unable to accomplish what I must. Still, the more nervous I am, the less likely that I will deliver the quality result that I need.

Harvard Business Review took on this topic in The Relationship Between Anxiety and Performance. The article explains that we are both hard-wired for certain types of stress responses and able to learn to perform better.

Research shows a strong correlation between your genetically conferred physiology and how likely you are to crack under stress. …Neuropeptide Y (NPY), a neurotransmitter in the brain that regulates stress responses, among other things, is relatively fixed from birth, more a function of heredity than of learning. People high in NPY tend to be unusually psychologically resilient and resistant to breaking down in high-pressure situations. …But that said, there’s also an element of “nurture” at work here. Psychological resilience is a trait that can be taught…

Athletes may look at particular types of anxiety as adversary: the player who’s normal prowess crumbles in the clutch, causing the championship to perpetually elude him.

The professional performer may struggle with stage fright, though just the right amount of anxiety may draw out a superb result.

Personally, I’ve had anxiety ruin an interview, a date, a special day. Haven’t you? But I am encouraged to know that we can learn to improve performance.

Overcome your anxieties by Building Your Confidence with our Returner Roll-Up Session

Anxiety Is Powerful and Damaging

As a parent, I have also been subject to worry getting the best of me. When that happens, my ability to reason is compromised. Make that severely compromised. That’s a very special sort of anxiety that most mothers and fathers will recognize — when a little one is hurt or an adolescent is in trouble.

In a more routine example, I was recently taking a professional exam following an extended period of study. Once upon a time, I was a well-oiled machine when it came to academic tests. Like others who spend years in college, graduate programs, and continuing development, learning was a comfortable pastime. More importantly, structured learning and assessments didn’t seem daunting.

But it’s been years since I’ve taken a class or course. Although old habits die hard, I wasn’t feeling warm and fuzzy about my ability to return to professional student mode. And I wasn’t interested in simply spitting back whatever was stored in short-term memory. The fact was, I genuinely wanted to master the material and be able to put it into practice. I wanted to do well!

Before the test, cue the pounding chest, the sweaty palms, and worry that I would choke. Anxiety was fueled by what I didn’t know, and I felt as ridiculous as a high school kid. Would I have enough time? Could the exam be multiple choice? Would there be essays? Would there be a facility to skip questions and come back before the time ran out? What if I had connectivity problems?

Once into the test, I was reassured by the assessment format and my comfort level with the subject matter. Score one for not letting performance anxiety get the better of me. And incidentally, that would have been more likely if I had been hungry or overtired.

Tips to Ease Performance Anxiety

As for gauging and managing anxiety so that it doesn’t impede achieving our objectives, I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks over the years that work for me. The most important, mentioned above — preparation.

So here they are, my tips:

  • Know your material / subject
  • Gather as much information as you can about circumstances, to reduce unknowns
  • Make sure you are as rested and physically comfortable as possible
  • Talk to a confidante about your anxiety
  • If you have an especially critical inner voice, tell it to take a hike!
  • Practice, practice, practice
  • Just before and during: Take slow, deep breaths
  • Just before and during: Soothing self-talk (“You know your stuff… You’re fine…”)
  • Ask yourself “what is the worst that can happen”

In my experience, fear for one’s safety (or that of a child) will significantly hamper our ability to reason clearly. That is not the sort of performance problems that most of us struggle with day to day. Rather, we are fearful of speaking (and being judged negatively). We are fearful of being embarrassed (in the spotlight). We are fearful of what we see as failure (of all sorts). I differentiate these fears from managing phobias, which is another matter and a different discussion.

When we find perspective (“what’s the worst that can happen?”), when we prepare well (practice, knowledge of subject matter, reducing unknowns), we regain a sense of control and are more likely to keep the most damaging aspects of anxiety at bay.

If you struggle with anxiety, try our Mentoring Programme. We can work with you to recognise and beat your stress points.

D A Wolf Subscriber
D A Wolf is a writer, editor, copywriter, marketer, trainer, polyglot, art collector, traveler, and devotee of exquisite footwear & French lingerie. She believes we are all brimming with glorious contradictions, and capable of living fully with whatever life dishes out.

Found that interesting?
Learn more about our services

Individual services

Make your dreams a reality with a professional evaluation of your career to date.

Corporate services

The evidence is in. More women in your company can deliver 35% greater financial returns. (Catalyst)

Upcoming events

Book Now

There are no upcoming Events at this time.

Dates for the Diary


12th January 2021  “Habits to help you work more effectively remotely”  Crop Life Europe - Corporate event

28th January 2021  “Licence  to hire -  Managing Bias in Recruitment”  ENGIE  - Corporate event

29th January 2021  “Licence  to hire -  Managing Bias in Recruitment”  ENGIE  - Corporate event

5th February  2021  “ How to Build your Personal Board“  ENGIE   Fifty-Fifty Programme  - Corporate event

8th March 2021  IWD "How to create a career and networking strategy for career success”   Highquest Partners  - Corporate event  


We have Remote Learning Programs available 

Check out our exciting portfolio of offerings to support your business in upskilling and competence building for your teams, to address the unprecedented challenges that women face in this new totally a digital world.

Download and listen free podcasts

Related articles

4 Steps to a Winning Mindset

4 Steps to a Winning Mindset

Tips for developing a winning mindset Mindset is particularly important when job hunting or seeking a promotion. It determines whether you show up self-confidently or wracked with self-doubt.   The dictionary defines mindset as “a person’s usual attitude or...

read more

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This
3 Plus International Call Back Request