Taming Performance Anxiety

We all experience it – performance anxiety. Whenever we are about to do something that matters we are likely to feel some physical symptoms of fear, to a greater or lesser degree. Speaking in public, in front of actual people, feels like something that matters.

Performance anxiety is part of the fight or flight response. It is a chemical shift that occurs in the body when the body feels it is in danger. And the body views a group of people staring at it as potentially dangerous. It begins to chemically ready itself to fight or flee.

The physical systems vary from queasy stomach, to trembling hands or knees, dry mouth, cold hands, perspiration, quivering voice, shallow breathing or loss of breath control, negative self-talk, or the mind going blank. In its mildest form, performance anxiety can give us the extra energy boost we need to push our performance to greatness. In excess amounts, performance anxiety can detract from our performance and even cripple us from trying at all.

The good news is you can tame performance anxiety!It is not a switch that can be flipped and you are forever cured. It is a process that must be worked repeatedly, each time you face a situation in which you are likely to experience performance anxiety, be it an interview, a 60 second pitch, a sales presentation, a business report or a motivational speech. 

In order to reverse the chemical shift of fight or flight, you can breathe deeply, stretch slowly and practice positive self-talk.  Slow deep breathing can actually change the chemical makeup of your body and brain. Begin slow deep breathing well before the event, before your body begins to experience the symptoms of anxiety. The breath mantra I like best is “slower, deeper, quieter, calmer.”

Start it in the morning and spend several minutes just repeating the phrase and adjusting your breath pattern to match. “Slower” means breathe in and out more slowly than you normally would – an easy 4 count. “Deeper” means feel the breath going deeper into your center, all the way down to your lower belly. “Quieter” means no sound on either the inhale of the exhale. “Calmly” means lower your shoulders and relax your jaw. Return to that throughout your day, if thoughts of the event begin to creep in, return to the “slower, deeper, quieter, calmer.”

Another breath pattern I teach is the 4-7-8. Inhale for a 4 count, hold for 7 and exhale for 8. This is a good exercise, particularly if your brain wants to run away with negative thoughts, focusing on this rather random pattern of 4-7-8 gives your mind a more complex task on which to focus.

Stretching the body helps to defray the adrenalin build up that occurs when we have performance anxiety. Move your shoulders in large, easy, slow circles, then lift your elbows and move them in circles. Finally extend your arms in big circles. Stretch your rib cage, stretch your back, stitch your ham strings. All the while breathing slowly and deeply.

Pay attention to the chatter in your brain. If you are saying things like “I am so going to blow this,” “They will think I am stupid,” “Why did I decide to do this at all?” “I have nothing new to contribute,” deliberately replace them with positive statements like “I am going to do well.” “I will succeed.” “They will think I know my stuff.” “I have unique gifts to share.” Even if you don’t believe them, say them, out loud. Write them down. The more you give a thought repetition, the more likely it is to take hold in your subconscious and you will begin to believe it. We believe what we say most to ourselves. Put another way, we are what we tell ourselves we are.

And continue breathing. As others are speaking before you, breathe. As you walk to the front of the audience, breathe; as you find your feet, breathe.

I used to be crippled with performance anxiety, so much so I quit performing for almost a decade. I cured myself by doing these techniques. And I still stretch before each important speech and start deep breathing from the time I get out of bed in the morning, till the actual event. I won’t let that fight or flight response ever take hold in my body. If you are dedicated to working the process, you too can tame your performance anxiety and be the best version of you each time to speak in public.


Rena Cook

Rena Cook is Professor Emerita at the University of Oklahoma. She is a TEDx speaker, author, voice, speech, confidence, and presentation coach. She is the founder of Vocal Authority, a training consultancy serving attorneys who want to use their voice in more commanding and authentic ways. She has authored several books, including Her Voice in Law, which she co-wrote with Laurie Koller. The book provides additional advice on the above topics and more, and is available at https://www.americanbar.org/.

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