Do you typically get nervous when facing an audience or a final? For some people, the jitteriness, sweaty palms, trouble concentrating, racing thoughts and general overwhelm occur any time they’re about to perform.
Performance or test anxiety produces a variety of symptoms whenever you’re put on the spot, whether it’s giving a presentation, being on stage or taking a test. According to psychologist Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D, author of Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload, these signs might include: procrastinating; being easily distracted or irritable; engaging in nervous habits like nail-biting; trouble sleeping, worrying about doing badly; and feeling paralyzed.
Here are six ideas on overcoming performance or test anxiety.
1. Identify your symptoms.
Like Palladino noted above, there are many signs of performance or test anxiety. Figure out your own set of symptoms. What physical sensations, thoughts or behaviors precipitate or perpetuate your anxiety?
For instance, at work, you might habitually procrastinate on preparing for a presentation. Minutes before, you might feel jittery or faint while negative thoughts churn in your head. Or during an exam, you might look at other students to see what they’re doing and assume that they’re having a much easier time. Once you can identify these warning signs, you can work to minimize them.
2. Develop healthy strategies to stave off symptoms.
Palladino suggested that readers turn to personal strategies to stop the above symptoms from flourishing. That’s why it’s so important to pinpoint the early signs of your anxiety, along with what’s behind your symptoms.
“The most effective strategies are those that identify and address the specific fear that underlies your anxiety,” Palladino said. For example, a perfectionist may be afraid of making mistakes. “Develop self-talk that gives you permission to be human,” she said. If you haven’t studied as much as you should, don’t judge or criticize yourself. Instead, face the problem and figure out a way to correct it, she said.
3. Use visualization techniques.
“If you’re preparing or studying, visualize yourself taking the exam [or doing any kind of performance] in a relaxed alert state,” Palladino said. Doing this over and over “’exposes’ you to the ‘threat’ in a safe environment, which systematically desensitizes your midbrain so it no longer perceives danger.”
The midbrain is our body’s ancient fight-or-flight response system that kicks into survival mode whenever it perceives a threat. Whether the threat is real or imagined — someone following us in a dark alley or preparing to play baseball in front of hundreds of people — the midbrain starts pumping adrenaline, Palladino said. Some adrenaline is good because it can help sharpen our focus, she said. But too much adrenaline can drive us out of our focus zone and into anxiety and tension.
4. Practice self-compassion.
When you feel the pangs of anxiety, does your self-talk sound something like this: “I can’t believe that I’m nervous about something so small. Of course, I am. I’m weak, and I can’t do anything right. Why would this be any different?” Or like this: “I’m not smart enough, and I just know that I’m going to fail. It doesn’t matter how much I’ve prepared.”
This negative self-talk only makes you feel worse and feeds your anxiety. Instead, be encouraging and supportive with yourself. Palladino suggested practicing positive self-talk such as “I’m proud of myself for being here, and challenging myself to do this.” What also can help is to “Think of people who believe in you, and recall past successes,” she added.
(Here’s more on cultivating self-compassion.)
How we view a situation has the power to color our emotions and reactions. If you think that a work presentation will make or break your career (and that you’ll inevitability bomb), your anxiety will, not surprisingly, surge. “Reframe your experience as one more adventure in life, not an event that defines you as a winner or a loser,” Palladino said.
6. Seek help.
If you’re having a difficult time working through your anxiety on your own, don’t hesitate to see a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. Performance and test anxiety are highly treatable, and you can absolutely get better! (You can search for therapists in your area with Psych Central’s therapist finder.)
Many universities offer excellent resources for test anxiety. These pages from The George Washington University and the University at Buffalo are especially helpful. Also, if public speaking makes you panicked, here’s a piece that might help, too.