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Managing Performance Anxiety

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Managing Performance Anxiety

Whether just before a big presentation, sitting down to write a test, moments before running onto the sports field, most of us have experienced pre-performance anxiety!


For some, this experience might be mild such as butterflies in the stomach, sweaty palms or an increased heartrate. For others, this may be more severe such as dizziness, nausea and vomiting. This state of anxiety is uncomfortable and has a significant negative effect on performance. While traditionally we might try to calm these nerves through various techniques, Alison Wood Brooks (2013) from the Harvard Business School suggests something different. She asked the question, instead of trying to change from anxiety to a state of calm, why not rather change it to excitement? This is based on the premise that instead of trying to move oneself from a state of high arousal (anxiety) to low arousal (calm), which can be rather emotionally taxing, it may be both easier and more effective to stay in a state of high arousal and just change ones experience of it. In this way one would only need to have a cognitive shift and not a physiological one as well, as both anxiety and excitement remain arousal congruent.


This idea is intriguing. Imagine being able to recreate the excitement we felt as a child before playing our favourite sport, putting on a concert for our family or showing our newly created artwork. The days before self-doubt and the pressure to perform crept in. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has long been grounded in the belief that one has the ability to influence behaviours and emotions though a change in thoughts. Similarly, in this study, it was found that one’s self-talk before an anxiety producing event influenced whether the person felt anxious or excited which then dramatically influenced performance. Stating something as simple as “I am excited” before an upcoming task, not only increased ones subjective experience of excitement, but also increased an opportunity mind-set and performance. Furthermore, through increased performance, one then increases self-confidence and with it the ability to create more future excitement and ongoing increased performance.


One might scoff saying ‘That’s easier said than done’, but we know through practice and repetition we can create new patterns, develop abilities and master techniques. We all have within us the ability to change our thinking, and with it our emotional control. For me, this idea therefore brought about an ‘exciting’ new way to think about the management and treatment of pre-performance anxiety!


Until next time!


The Cohen Clinic


Brooks, A. W. (2014). Get excited: reappraising pre-performance anxiety as excitement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(3), 1144.

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