Have you ever experienced an unpleasant state of restlessness and panic right before a big interview or presentation? Do work meetings, product presentations, or performance reviews make you feel uneasy? Do you tend to make up all sorts of excuses just to avoid being in the spotlight?
If that’s the case, then you’re probably dealing with performance anxiety. If left unchecked, this condition – which affects millions of people – can eventually turn into generalised anxiety disorder or panic attacks.
It seems that performance anxiety has become increasingly more common in our society. Psychologists and other healthcare professionals are frequently visited by teens, students, and young adults who struggle to cope with the pressure of ‘being the best’.
What is Performance Anxiety?
Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health issues, affecting millions of people around the world. In fact, the World Health Organisation estimates that roughly 260 million people are living with anxiety worldwide.
Given that our ever-changing world places a premium on competition and spectacular results, it’s no wonder many of us find it impossible to handle the constant pressure of staying on top of the game.
Sadly, performance anxiety can often prevent us from doing what we like and can quickly ruin our career. Furthermore, this condition can negatively impact self-esteem and self-confidence causing us to miss out of valuable experiences and opportunities.
Paradoxically, people with performance anxiety are often perceived by others as ambitious high-achieving perfectionists who deliver nothing less than impeccable results. In the workplace, these people bring a significant contribution to the overall well-being of the company.
What many of us don’t know is that, on the inside, people with performance anxiety struggle with a lot of uncertainty and self-doubt. In fact, it is the clash between self-imposed standards and self-doubt that gives rise to their anxiety.
If you want to overcome performance anxiety, you need to start by adjusting your mindset.
4 Steps to Overcome Workplace Performance Anxiety
Step 1: Plan ahead
Since anxiety is mainly about what might happen in the future, a great way to prepare yourself for unpleasant surprises is by having a plan.
Planning allows you to visualise the entire process, set up milestones, and exercise control over future situations/events that may trigger your performance anxiety.
Whether you need to deliver an impressive product presentation, pitch a brilliant idea, or attend a stressful meeting with top managers from your company, planning will save you a lot of headaches.
Once you put it down on paper, you will gain a whole new perspective on things. In other words, a carefully designed action plan provides clarity and direction, something that your anxious mind is in desperate need of.
If you follow the steps and stick to your plan, you have a better shot at keeping your performance anxiety in check.
Step 2: Challenge your thinking
When it comes to anxiety, it’s not the situation/event that’s making us feel worried and uncomfortable, but the way we interpret it.
More specifically, those of us who struggle with workplace performance anxiety are worried about how we believe others will evaluate us. The personal interpretations that we attribute to other people (especially authority figures) dictate the way we feel about them.
For example, if we think our audience is comprised of harsh individuals who can’t wait to point out our mistakes and expose the flaws in our presentation, this interpretation will trigger enough anxiety to cause “gaps” in our performance. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, our anxiety-filled thoughts bring our worst fears to life.
But have you ever stopped to challenge your thinking? Have you ever questioned the validity of your negative interpretations? Have you ever considered how your thoughts “set the stage” for unpleasant emotions like anxiety and counterproductive behaviours such as avoidance?
Perhaps it’s time to challenge your thinking and adopt a set of rational beliefs.
How would your performance change if instead of “Everyone’s going to think my presentation sucks” you would tell yourself “Some people might not like it but that doesn’t mean it sucks.”
Identify and challenge the irrational beliefs that fuel your performance anxiety!
A rational perspective on your overall performance gives rise to positive emotions such as enthusiasm and encouragement. It also helps you accept frustration and disappointment as perfectly normal reactions that could drive progress by motivating us to do better next time.
Step 3: Reframe failure
Since performance anxiety gravitates around the fear of negative evaluations, perhaps it would be wise to reframe failure into a valuable learning opportunity.
Those of us dealing with workplace performance anxiety are afraid of negative evaluations because we interpret criticism (be it constructive or destructive) as a clear and undeniable sign of failure.
And when it comes to work, failure could mean losing a big project to your competitors, getting fired, not having enough money to pay your mortgage, and eventually ending up on the streets.
See how an anxiety-driven mentality can throw us into a spiral of worst-case scenarios, each one more frightening than the last!?
But failure is part of life; it’s part of being ‘in the game.’
If there’s one thing all successful people have in common is that they failed more times than you can imagine. In fact, their road towards success was not a journey but an obstacle course where each challenge made them stronger and smarter.
A learning opportunity – that’s how you need to look at failure!
Step 4: Don’t get anxious, get excited!
Did you know there is a way to use anxiety to our advantage!?
In 2013, Alison Wood Brooks (professor at Harvard Business School) published a groundbreaking study on performance anxiety.
By encouraging subjects to say “I’m excited” before participating in different activities (e.g., public speaking, karaoke singing, maths performance), she was able to help them reappraise performance anxiety as excitement.
The logic behind this trick is relatively simple. Anxiety is an emotion that prepares us for an event which we interpret as “serious” or “threatening.” In other words, it helps our body and mind mobilise enough resources to handle the situation well.
Since performance anxiety puts us in ‘alert mode,’ using a relaxation technique to calm down would be like slamming the breaks on a car that’s going at 100 kph. You waste all that momentum and speed when you could have put it to good use.
By telling yourself “I’m excited” instead of “I’m worried/anxious/concerned” right before an important meeting or presentation, anxiety becomes the driving force that keeps you on top of your game.
All in all, overcoming workplace performance anxiety is mainly about challenging your irrational beliefs and adopting the right attitude towards criticism, feedback, evaluation, and failure.