Many people find themselves feeling anxious and stressed in work situations, especially when they have to "perform" in front of others or face tasks that feel too daunting. They can become anxious at home also, feeling uncertain about relationship problems.
When I first began working as a mental coach for professional tennis players, I was surprised to discover that even athletes who are ranked amongst the top in the world sometimes find their level of play cramped by anxious feelings. The causes there are strikingly similar to the causes of anxiety at work, and even at home.
The good news was that as I debriefed with my players after instances in which sudden anxiety had undermined their performance, I began to see that virtually all the anxiety episodes occurred in response to one of just 3 triggering thoughts.
Trigger #1: Intimidating yourself with the Bigs
The big point, the big game, the big tournament, my big chance... all these phrases trigger anxiety.
Of course there are some critical moments in any activity. Focusing on how important that moment is, however, invites anxiety which constricts thinking and muscles, decreasing performance.
The notion that an activity is 'new' can have a similar anxiety-inducing impact. Avoid thoughts like "This is the first time I've ever ...."
The cure: Eliminate the word big from your vocabulary, and also phrases like "the first time I've..." Instead of seeing moments as big or new, treat all moments as equal.
Remind yourself that In fact games are not won by the any particular "big" point, but rather by how you play all throughout the match. Similarly, careers for the most part are built on collecting many fine performances, rarely on any one particular one. Most of the time, win or lose, there's almost always another tournament or performance opportunity in the future.
Trigger #2: Jumping ahead
"Oh no, I'm going to lose!" That thought is a killer, and so is its opposite, "Wow! I'm going to win!"
By contrast with those who jump ahead to guess outcomes like this, psychologically skilled performers stay in the moment. As Yogi Berra once said, "The game's not over till it's over."
Guessing that either bad or good things that will happen down the road creates needless and counter-productive emotionality. Jumping ahead with any speculation about the future, like "I wonder if giving a great speech will then get me a promotion?" invites nervous feelings.
During a performance of any type, thinking ahead to outcomes like who will win and who will lose or to how well-received your performance will be is problematic also because these thoughts distract you from the task at hand.
The cure: To stay in the flow, stay in the present. Focus your attention on either what you are doing at the moment or, if there is a pause in the action, what to do on the very next point or action.
If you find that you have inadvertently jumped ahead to guess an outcome, shift immediately, and calmly, back to the immediate present. Pat yourself on the back for having caught the error and corrected it.
Trigger #3: What do they (the audience, other players, etc.) think of me?
Guessing others' reactions first of all distracts you from the task at hand. All your mental energies need to remain steadily, without interruption, on what you are doing.
Second, thoughts of how others see you position your perspective as an outsider watching yourself. Performance is higher when you let yourself become fully absorbed in the activity itself. Enjoy the game. Think about your next move. Submerge yourself in the content of your speech or the music you are playing. Wait to come up for air and look about until the performance has been completed.
Thirdly, most people who speculate on what others think of them anticipate negative judgments. They assume others are viewing them critically, and then believe their mistaken assumption. That belief, that others are looking at you critically, will immediately cook up anxious feelings.
The cure: Better to stay focused on your task. What others think is not your problem. Doing your best by being fully absorbed in what you are doing is a far better strategy.
Focus 100% of your attention on what you are doing by imagining an impermeable mental bubble around you, between you and others.
And if anxious feelings emerge nonetheless?
Breathe deeply and slowly, focusing on the fresh air you are taking in. Then switch your attention to the task at hand.
As absorption in what you are doing takes over, anxiety diminishes and soon disappears.
These technques are for minimizing anxiety during performances
A performance may be a speech, an athletic event, a concert or play, or any situation in which you will be watched by others. In all of these, a small tidbit of anxiety can add an element of excitement and extra energy to your performance. Too much anxiety constricts both muscles and thinking. That's why prevention is helpful.
If anxiety arises in non-performance situations such as if you feel nervous when you think ahead to a challenging situation you will be facing, then the paradigms most helpful for handling anxiety flip.
Looking squarely at the problem, gathering information, and solving the dilemma become preferable to focusing intensely on the present task at hand and blocking thoughts of the future. I'll write more on anxiety-management in non-performance situations in a subsequent posting.
Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a Denver clinical and sports psychologist, is author of multiple books,audios and a video plus an interactive website on the skills for marriage success called Power of Two.
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