How to overcome performance anxiety: a 5-step guide

Have you ever heard that joke that many people would rather be in their own coffins at a funeral than give a eulogy? While this may be a bit of an exaggeration, it would not be an overstatement to say that most people would agree.

Heart racing, sweaty palms, dry mouth, shaking knees. You know that gut-wrenching feeling you get. Most of us feel a certain degree of anxiety when preparing to speak up in front of a group, whether it is six people or thousands, whether it is a presentation, a group interview, an oral exam or a meeting in the office.

Performance anxiety, often called stage fright, is all in your head, but manifests itself in the physical sense. When you feel that all eyes are on you, your self-awareness makes it nearly impossible to focus on what is really going on around you. Your mind goes foggy and your distress is further fueled by any effort you can make to hide your discomfort. And when this strikes it can trigger:

  • sweating;
  • shallower and shorter breaths;
  • blushing;
  • nausea;
  • shaking hands and knees;
  • tight throat;
  • wobbly legs;
  • dry mouth;
  • sense of dread;
  • fuzzy vision;
  • twitching;
  • desire to frequently go to the toilet;
  • inability to think straight and speak coherently.

You may even have these symptoms for some time before the event, accompanied by loss of appetite and sleeping problems. And even after the presentation, performance or exam, such feelings remain as you go over and over it in your mind, wondering how other people may have judged you.

Performance anxiety is not the same as shyness. It is a way more intense fear, which impedes your ability to perform at your best and which exacts an enormous toll on self-esteem and self-confidence. Stage fright and all kinds of performance anxiety cause a lot of brilliant and successful people to leave school, college and jobs, and many to suffer in silent terror.

How to overcome your performance anxiety

The first step in mastering performance anxiety is to understand what it is, because it is hard to overcome something that you do not fully understand.

Performance anxiety is an instinctive survival mechanism. When you suffer from nervous apprehension, you are under the perception that you are in danger, as your presentation is being watched and possibly judged by others. The primitive parts of your brain control your instinctive physical reaction to danger, stimulating the release of adrenaline, which, basically, makes you run faster if you are being chased by a predator. That’s why your heart starts beating so fast. It is an unconscious instinctive physical response.

By changing the perception that you are in danger, you can change your response and your body’s reaction. Here are some ways to overcome performance anxiety:

1. Vividly visualize a positive outcome

Focus all of your attention on visualizing yourself giving a perfect presentation. Focus on your strength. The more time and effort you spend imagining being great and anticipating successful outcomes, the more likely you will achieve them and the better prepared you will be to respond that way in the real situation.

2. Practice and be prepared

Prepare a lot. Know your stuff and your audience. Practice increases your familiarity of a specific task, making you feel more confident and relieving your inner anxiety. The more thoroughly you know your stuff, the easier it will be for you to talk about it, even under pressure.

The first few seconds are the most terrifying, so, it is advisable to learn the first few lines of your presentation by heart, but not the whole speech. Create notes and highlight the most important points so that they are easy to read.

3. Calm yourself

Take a walk around the block, close your eyes and listen to some music, call a friend and laugh out loud. Do whatever brings you to a place of peace. Don’t take pills or drink alcohol to calm your nerves and try to limit caffeine as well.

4. Practice breathing exercises

Stretch your arms up and breathe deep into your belly, through your nose and out through your mouth. When you are anxious, your body instinctively tend to revert to rapid chest breathing, to keep you in the “fight mode”. Conversely, diaphragmatic breathing is the most effective way to trigger a relaxation response.

5. Practical tips

Stand up straight, in a confident posture. Smile, keep your head up and, if possible, rest your shaky hands on a table or podium. Don’t touch your hair, mouth and clothes.

Speak more slowly than usual, make eye contact and smile as you speak. Other people will surely perceive it as calm confidence.

If you are suffering from long-term anxiety, though, please seek professional help.