The Human Beast

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The Secret of Performance Under Pressure

Overcoming performance anxiety

Some people freeze under the glare of publicity like rabbits in the headlights. Many seasoned performers show no strain however. What is their secret? How can you learn it?

Some students do not test well. The anxiety of taking an important test means that their score is substantially lower than it would be if they took the test when the stakes were lower. The job interview is another situation where candidates shoot themselves in the foot by losing their cool.

Some individuals suffer more than others and it scarcely helps that we live in a world where there is little understanding of, or tolerance for, shyness, test anxiety, performance anxiety, or fear of social evaluation. Fortunately, social psychologists have done a great deal to account for these problems and to suggest strategies for getting the better of performance anxiety.

Two approaches are particularly helpful. One is to look at expert performers who are constantly in the public eye yet never choke. The other is to ask what may be done to reduce the perceived threat of unfavorable social evaluation.

The experts

Star performers have the strange gift of making their job seem devoid of stress, even effortless. Frank Sinatra may be the perfect example of this style of singing.

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One might be forgiven for imagining that performers in this league have moved on from opening-night jitters. Yet, that would be an illusion.

The truth is a great deal more complex. In reality, performance anxiety never goes away. The only real difference is that successful performers are good at handling it. If they are smart, they make sure that they are well rehearsed so that they are unlikely to feel crippling anxiety during the performance itself. The reason, of course, is that a well-practiced performance can be done without anxiety.

On the other hand, if a person is not well prepared, then the additional anxiety due to the impact of the audience may undermine the show such that they forget their lines or otherwise humiliate themselves.

Although performance anxiety never goes away entirely, it is a manageable aspect in the day of a professional performer. It never keeps them awake at night, for instance. At worst, they feel a certain unease in the half-hour before going on. If they are smart, they perceive their performance anxiety as more positive than otherwise. In effect, it is like an adrenaline shot that gives them the energy to do well.

Reducing the threat

Being practiced, or well prepared, is the best antidote for performance anxiety but it is not always enough. Talk to anyone with severe test anxiety who knows all the correct answers but is so flustered that they fill in the wrong multiple choice bubbles.

Experts advise that a person does everything they can to familiarize themselves with the test situation – not only doing full-length mockups of the test but even familiarizing oneself with the test room in advance. If it is known and familiar, it is that much less anxiety-provoking.

It can also be helpful to reinterpret the situation in less threatening ways. In particular, it may be good to change from being the subject of evaluation to being the evaluator. Good public speakers always seem interested in their audience.

In a job interview, it is also helpful to think about the interviewers. Are they appropriately dressed? Are their questions spontaneous, or from a potted list? Do they present their company in a good light? Would you like to work with them? Have they presented any compelling reasons why a talented person would accept the job?

Such turning of the tables is more than a shallow psychological trick. It highlights the fact that in a free society, all relationships are inherently equal at least in the sense that any job offer can be rejected.

That is something that people with performance anxiety often forget. Instead of wondering whether they are good enough for the job, they might ask themselves whether the job is good enough for them.

Performance anxiety is a persistent problem for many people and constitutes one of their most deep-seated fears. Yet, it can be substantially reduced. You may not be able to sing like Sinatra but perhaps you can stay as cool.

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

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