Transform Performance Anxiety into Performance Enhancement

Big presentation coming up? If you’re like most people, you will feel a little bit nervous. You might even drink at the end of the day leading up to your performance, thinking this will help you “unwind.” The problem is that alcohol hinders peak performance when the event arrives. The good news is that this fear and anxiety can be transformed into helpful strengths. You don’t need alcohol or so-called “performance enhancing” drugs as crutches when you harness performance anxiety to your benefit.

Here are 4 tips to give yourself an edge the next time you have a presentation:

Tip 1: Study the biology of courage. Racing heart, feelings of panic, and waves of anxiety send most of us into a sense of panic. We tend to *think* that these are “bad” signs, that we are somehow not “ready enough” because we are feeling fear. We assign these physiological symptoms negative labels, based on a false belief that they are signs of weakness or lack of preparation. The reality is that these are actually signs of courage and preparation.

Tip 2: Be cautious with “performance anxiety” medications. The biology of courage invites us to consider a really, REALLY important point: does it make sense to medicate the stress away? Your medical doctor may offer you a range of “cures” such as beta-blockers or benzos (like Xanax and Ativan), thinking they are doing this to help you. This is because most medical doctors think that the goal is to get rid of “negative” symptoms. HOWEVER, there is a chance that your peak performance actually is a direct result of how your body prepares you for the event. Consider the times you have presented in the past: although you may initially feel panicked and worried, but your body will consistently settle into the performance and do well so long as you view your “performance panic” as a “performance boost.” Your body will regulate itself, experience a surge of confidence, and then allow your mind to have fun with the experience. This has always been my experience of performance as well, and I have observed this in others. The first 30 seconds feel like hell, the words we say sound strange, and the room feels weird. Those 30 seconds feel like an infinite amount of time. But then a funny thing happens: your body regulates into the experience, and that surge of adrenaline serves you well. It sharpens your focus, tunes you into the audience, and allows you to recall concepts and facts up with lightning speed.

Why, then, would our well-meaning doctors try to prescribe our performance anxiety away? Consider the following fact: few, if any doctors are willing to be in a situation where they are being grilled, graded, and scored once they leave their residency program. Most doctors hate taking flak or criticism from others. Psychiatrists, primary care doctors, (and therapists!) operate behind closed doors, and are notoriously unwilling to accept feedback or criticism from others. Is it any wonder why doctors think you need beta-blockers as a crutch?

The exception among doctors? Surgeons. Over the course of their residency, surgeons learn that their BEST work comes from the adrenaline rush. They perform in front of an entire treatment team, and are even in a literal fishbowl with others watching them from outside the room or through cameras. Surgeons perform with life or death consequences. And we respect them for this. How do they do it? Surgeons learn to love the feeling of anticipation. They thrive on performance anxiety. Surgeons know that performance anxiety and adrenaline makes them BETTER at what they do.

Tip 3. Move your body. This isn’t about going to the gym (although that is a helpful habit for dealing with general, day-to-day anxiety). This is about taking 2 minutes to move your body in a way that will immediately change your feeling of confidence. Anxiety tells the body to move, but the mind’s temptation is to sit in front of a computer completely frozen in fear. (Has this ever helped you feel less stressed? Not so much). If you notice that you are feeling frozen, allow yourself to take a quick break from the screen, step outside, and walk around the block. Now, at the presentation: Once you are in the room, allow your shoulders to open. Stand tall. Wear shoes that allow you to feel as comfortable as possible standing at your full height. The unconscious tendency for people when they are nervous is to do the opposite by pulling their shoulders inward. This was a good strategy when we were surviving on the Sarengetti and had to hide from predators. It’s not a great strategy for the boardroom. Two minutes of confident body positioning helps us feel better.

Tip 4. Remember the gift. Any time you notice your thinking spiraling into negativity, ask yourself, “What is the gift here?” If you’ve performed terribly in the past, recall what you learned from the experience. Failure always has a gift in rough packaging. Challenging experiences reveal our greatest strengths and remind us of who we are. If you notice yourself struggling to identify the gift of this challenge, imagine a split screen: on one side you can see your fearful self who has struggled, and on the other side you can see your ideal, healthy, Wise Adult. What does your Wise Adult have to say?

With these strategies up your sleeve, your performance anxiety can be transformed into performance strengths.

Sarah Suzuki, AM, LCSW, CADC

Sarah Suzuki, AM, LCSW, CADC

Hi, I'm Sarah, and I'm a counselor who helps high-achieving men learn how to moderate their drinking. I currently offer counseling services and corporate training here at Chicago Compass Counseling. If you're interested, you can read more about me on my about page.