You’ve practiced this a million times. You’re ready. You’re good at this….then why is your heart beating so fast? Why are your palms sweating? Your thoughts are all over the place and your muscles feel heavy and stiff. You’re wondering where your confidence is when you need it most.
A big speech, a last second free throw, a presentation for the board of directors, a penalty kick, the SAT, the next serve after a double fault, or the licensing exam that will allow you to change careers and provide for your family. Performance anxiety is a common stress response to these big moments when pressure feels high, consequences seem dire, and rationality is out to lunch. It’s very natural and very uncomfortable, and it affects your ability to “perform” or engage effectively in the activity that you have prepared to do.
The good news is…
- There are some positives to the physiological response that your body is undergoing that are very helpful for performance.
- It usually subsides not long after your performance, game, or event begins
- There are tools that you can implement and ways to change your perspective that can help
This is the first blog in a three part series about performance anxiety. This blog will explore the effects of performance anxiety on your body, the effects on your mind/thought processes, and the potential benefits (yes benefits) of some of these effects. The second blog will look at tools to overcome performance anxiety and the third will relay real life examples of how successful performers (athletes, musicians, business professionals) manage their performance anxiety.
Effects on your Body – Fight, Flight or Freeze
Let’s start with what’s happening in your body. Most people have heard of the flight or fight response. This is the body’s physiological response to high stress situations. Evolutionarily speaking, our bodies initiate this in response to mortal danger. We’re preparing ourselves to run from or fight a predator. What this means in our body is that our amygdala (fear radar) in our brain sounds the alarm and hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline) are released causing a cascade of effects. Our breathing rate increases (shorter, shallower breaths), our pulse or heartbeat increases (pumping blood faster to our limbs to get ready to move!), our throat may tighten up, our mouth gets dry, our hands or voice may tremble, we sweat in order to try to keep our temperature from rising too much, and glucose (sugar) is released into our blood stream to fuel our muscles. Do these sound familiar? Now if we needed to run from danger, this response would be welcomed. When you’re standing up in front of your board of directors to give a presentation – this response probably doesn’t seem helpful!
The fight or flight response has a third, lessor known, component – the freeze response. When confronted with a high stress situation in which fight or flight don’t seem like a viable option, your body will initiate a freeze response. The idea is that the lion will not be interested in prey that’s already dead, or the prey will not experience the pain of being devoured because they are in an altered state. For our purposes, the freeze response can look like “freezing up” when you’re about to give a speech, shoot a free throw, or take a test. It’s the classic “deer in the headlights” moment when you’re supposed to perform at your piano recital and you can’t remember the notes. You may not literally completely freeze (or you may) but you become very tense, unable to communicate effectively, and not able to think clearly (eg. remembering your lines). Needless to say, this will have a debilitating effect on your performance.
Athletes may be familiar with their legs feeling heavy when they are nervous. Why is this happening? I thought there was more blood flow to the limbs, shouldn’t they be energized? That is true, but it’s a little more complicated than that. Muscles tense in preparation for movement – think a spring being pushed down. There is a sweet spot where this tension supports movement and feels energizing. When there is too much tension (due to performance pressure) or the tension lasts too long, it can feel like the opposite of energizing – heavy, stiff and unresponsive.
Another more subtle physiological response of performance anxiety is that you get ‘tunnel vision’ – your field of vision narrows and you stop taking in as much information from your periphery. Great if you need to be hyper-focused because you’re running from a predator, not so good if your trying to make eye contact with the people in the audience you as you give a speech.
Longer Term Effects – Riding the Gas and Break at the Same Time
The fight or flight response activates a part of our nervous system called our Sympathetic Nervous Systems (think the gas pedal in your car). Our Parasympathetic Nervous System (think brake pedal) kicks in to help the body return to normal after the stress or perceived threat has passed. When your system has trouble returning to normal, the fight or flight effects (increased heart rate, muscle tension, glucose released into blood stream) persist and move towards becoming more of a baseline state. There can be countless negative effects of this over time – heart disease, respiratory conditions, weakened immune system, and variety of gastrointestinal issues just to name a few. So in addition to the immediate benefits of improved performance, the tools to help manage performance anxiety can have much broader positive effects on your health.
Effects on your Mind – Focusing on what might go Wrong
The fight or flight response are not just physiological, it has a significant effect on your thought processes as well. Fear can cause your mind to focus on past negative events in an effort to try to protect you from repeating those mistakes. This makes sense if you are reminding yourself not to wander towards that cave where the mountain lion lives, but being reminded of all your double faults just before a big serve is not helpful. Your prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of planning, kicks into high gear during moments of performance anxiety – trying to foresee what could go wrong and plan for it. This is counter to the “flow” state that athletes are hoping to achieve where you are ‘thinking’ less and reacting more. Fear causes your brain to ‘scan’ for danger, causing your focus to go towards what might go wrong and away from effectively completing the task at hand.
Benefits of this ‘Heightened’ State
Some of the effects of performance anxiety (fight or flight) can actually be beneficial depending on the nature of the performance. For an athlete, increased blood flow to your limbs gets your body primed for action. Athletes often describe finding that “edge” where they are energized and ready without being too tense. The increase in oxygen to your brain and higher level of sensory alertness (pupils dilate, sharper hearing, improved sense of smell) can all help performers be more focused, responsive, and alert. The increase in access to energy reserves (glucose being released) causes a bump in energy that can be useful, especially for performances involving physical activity. Athletes can experience an initial, sometimes frenetic, period of high energy due to this glucose release, followed by a period of fatigue before they get their “second wind” and settle into a more even energy level.
Three things I hope you take away about performance anxiety:
- It’s very normal to be nervous and will likely subside
- Reframe the sensations your feeling as your body being ready, like a spring ready to release.
- Having anxiety about your performance means that you care and that you want to do well!
Understanding what is going on in your body and in your mind is an empowering step towards overcoming the debilitating effects of performance anxiety. Our next blog in this three part series will cover tools – practical approaches to managing performance anxiety!
Please feel free to let me know if you have questions or comments!
Andrew Bednarzik, Owner of Riverbank Counseling in Asheville, NC