You are just about to step on stage. Acting in a Broadway play has been a lifelong dream. But moments before stepping on stage, you begin experiencing a debilitating anxiety. Your knees are shaking. Your face has turned red. You think you’re going to make a fool of yourself on the stage and destroy any chances of a career in the theater.
It’s not uncommon to get nervous before an important event, especially one that may have consequences for your personal or professional life. “Performance anxiety is very real, and it happens to all of us to varying degrees,” says Sioux Messinger, clinical faculty member in the department of psychiatry, School of Medicine, University of California, San Francisco. “It is the product of fear-based thoughts.”
Anxiety levels vary in different people. “If you are of a nervous disposition, you are more likely to experience performance anxiety,” says Joan Kingsley, a psychotherapist and author of The Fear-Free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform your Business Culture. “If you are the type who is calm, cool, and collected, then you are likely to use stress to motivate you.”
Afraid you’re going to mess up your dinner date tonight? Here are some practical ways to cope with performance anxiety when it strikes:
1. Get excited: Anxious? Don’t stay calm. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology last year, researchers found through multiple experiments that people who got excited before an event fared better than those who tried to stay calm. For example, in one study people who said, “I am excited” before a public speech were more relaxed and persuasive during their speech compared to the people who said, “I am calm.”
2. Be your own cheerleader: In the run up to the task, you are going to have to pay attention to what you say to yourself. “When you say ‘I hope I don’t drop the ball’, your brain actually makes a picture of you dropping the ball,” says Mattison Grey, business coach and author of The Motivation Myth. “Then you take the field with a picture of you dropping the ball.” Heading to the field? Use uplifting, positive words, such as, ‘I’m sure I can catch the ball.’ “Catching the ball becomes the intention and puts your attention on what you want to happen,” says Grey.
3. Take deep breaths: In a 2012 Australian study published in PLOS One, researchers found that slow breathing helped musicians overcome anxiety before a performance. “Taking long, slow, deep breaths activates the parts of the brain that enhance focus, reduce rapid heart beat, calm muscles, and give steady hands,” says sports psychologist Sari Shepphird. “Practice this kind of deep belly breathing every day so that when you are in a performance situation you will know what to do and how well it can help you get ready to be ‘on’.”
4. Be carefree: It may help to develop a bit of a devil-may-care attitude. “It doesn’t matter if you’re at the Super Bowl or in a pee-wee football game, let go of the pressure to be perfect,” says Jeremy C. Holm, former head coach for the U.S. adaptive bobsled team and author of The Champion’s Way. “You’re human, the audience is human and everyone around you is human.” Even if you stumble, it’s not the end of the world. There will be a next time. “When the fear of ‘failure’ goes, so does it’s association with performance anxiety,” says Holm.
5. Visualize: Rehearse your performance—in your head—for several days before taking the stage. “Visualization is a way for you to train your brain and build mental muscle memory,” says sports performance analyst Chelsea Logan. “This can help you from freezing up when anxiety hits.” If you are going to be in a game, visualize the small details of it. “See yourself walking out of the locker room towards the field,” says Logan. “Hear the sound of your cleats hitting the concrete floor as you are walking down the ramp.”
Remember that performance anxiety is perfectly normal. You can’t eliminate it. Just be prepared to cope with it when it strikes.