Understanding performance anxiety

Whether at school or at work, it’s normal to feel anxious or even stressed out when you’re faced with an important task (exam, job interview, negotiations, etc.). But when that anxiety becomes overwhelming and causes suffering, it’s no longer a normal reaction; it’s what is referred to as performance anxiety.

When thoughts and emotions take over

Performance anxiety can occur before, during, and after a stressful situation, and can create apprehension, an excessive fear of failure, and even anxiety or panic attacks. 

People who suffer from performance anxiety experience negative thoughts that often degenerate into worst-case scenarios. For example, in an exam situation, the person’s thoughts may go from “I can’t remember anything” to “I’m useless” to “I’ll never graduate” to “I’m going to end up living on the street.” 

Some people may also have unattainable expectations and believe they are not allowed to fail.

Very real symptoms

Migraines, digestive disorders, trembling, excessive sweating, irritability, and insomnia are just some of the physical manifestations of performance anxiety.

Compensatory behaviours

The fear of failure often pushes people with performance anxiety to avoid a specific task or activity. They also tend to avoid criticism and seek out positive feedback. 

Many are perfectionists, which, paradoxically, can work against them. Perfectionists tend to get hung up on the details and overlook the big picture.

Reducing performance anxiety

Learning to control performance anxiety usually requires some soul searching, to help you clearly understand your fears and the thoughts feeding your anxiety. Cognitive behavioural therapy can be very useful in these cases, because it helps you replace negative thoughts with more constructive thoughts. It also helps you understand that your value lies not in what you do, but in who you are.

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