Have you ever stood up in class about to do a presentation or been to an oral exam and gone completely blank, like someone just switched off your brain and you are no longer able to think or move? Yeah, me too…
Many of us have what is commonly known as “stage fright”. It occurs when a person has to stand up in front of a group of people and perform. Whether this be a song, a dance, a speech, a play, or at a speaking exam, it is all performance anxiety.
Performance anxiety symptoms may include:
- Racing pulse and rapid breathing
- Dry mouth and tight throat
- Trembling hands, knees, lips, and voice
- Sweaty and cold hands
- Nausea and an uneasy feeling in your stomach
- Vision changes
Performance anxiety brings out the same reaction as if you were being attacked, which means your body’s “fight-or-flight” mechanism kicks in.
Let me tell you about the incident which led me to seek professional help to conquer my performance anxiety:
I have only ever really experienced this when it comes to speaking exams.
I can handle written exams as I am not confronted with an actual human being, but when it comes to speaking exams I tend to freak a little out. I am not in school atm, and I have no plans to go back in the near future, but in Gymnasium (High School/College), I had a total of 5 speaking exams.
At my first speaking exam I did fine, actually. I think because I actually knew my stuff.
It wasn’t until my second speaking exam that I figured out I needed professional help to get through the rest of Gymnasium.
It was in chemistry, and I was not at all confident. Our teacher had never been good at giving constructive criticism, and we got our assignments back several months after we had handed them in. Oh and the entire last subject, which we should have done in class over the last month of school, we had to go through in only 2 lessons, after the exam period had already started! There were 7 possible subjects and I had 3 which I felt sort of confident about. The other 4, however… Not so much.
And what happened? I drew the absolut worst subject possible. It was the oldest of all the subjects and I didn’t even have a proper report on the experiment from when we did it the first time. The moment I drew that subject my mind just went “fuck” and switched off. I had 30 minutes to prepare everything, most of which I spent looking out the window, contemplating whether or not I really needed an education.
The 30 minutes ended and I entered the classroom where the exam was held. The actual examination was 15 minutes long, and I swear on my shoe-collection that those were the longest 15 minutes of my entire life. And holy crap have I never had such a tiny voice. I normally don’t speak very quietly, so this was me being completely out of character. My teacher and the sensor both looked at me with absolute pity in their eyes. At least they decided to spare me the pain of failing and gave me a passing grade, however, only just passing, which did wonders for my average grade (in the wrong direction).
After this nightmare was finally over, I went straight home and cried myself to sleep. I had never felt so weak and stupid in my entire life, which did wonders for my self-esteem (also in the wrong direction.
Well, this episode made me sign up for exam guidance my my schools counsellor. We were a bunch of girls, who over 4 afternoons learned how to conquer and calm our thoughts. We were taught that it’s all up in our head. Let me give you an example of how such a thought-spiral could look like:
If I don’t get a good enough grade, I won’t get a good enough average grade to get into University. If I don’t get into University, I’ll never get a job. If I don’t get a job, I won’t be able to buy food or afford a roof over my head. If I don’t have a home, I’ll end up on the streets. And if I can’t afford food, I’ll starve to death.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on oneself over one little exam: Do well or die!
So here’s where I give you some tips on how to stop yourself from going down this spiral:
Acknowledge your anxiety!
Accept the fact, that you have performance anxiety. The first step towards helping a problem is (and will always be) acknowledging the fact that there is a problem.
The better prepared you are, the more confident you will naturally be about presenting it to an audience or an examiner.
It’s okay to be nervous!
Actually, it’s best if you are a little nervous, as this is where you perform best. If you are too calm, it means you don’t really care, and so you don’t do your best. If you are too nervous, your minds shuts down, and so you are unable to do your best. However, there is this this place called butterflies-in-the-stomach nervousness, which is where you want to be.
Convince yourself, that you’ll do your best, and that that is okay. Before you enter the examination room or enter the stage stare into a wall (or even better, a morror) and repeat a mantra to yourself. Mine sounded something along the lines of “I will do my best, and that is good enough.” I then repeated this at least 20 times before entering. However, it is very important that you say this out loud! Saying things out loud makes them true, and that is what you want to make yourself believe.
Visualise your succes!
If you are a comedian, visualise the audience laughing at your jokes. If you are a student, visualise the teacher’s proud smile. If you are a dancer or a singer, visualise yourself killing your moves or hitting those notes perfectly, then visualise the audience giving you a standing ovation.
Practice breathing techniques and mediation, as these are great when it comes to keeping your thoughts from going in the wrong direction.
Let go of your fear!
Close your eyes and start to deepen your breath. In through the nose and out through the mouth, like if you are breathing out through a straw. Relax your head, your neck, your shoulders, your chest, your legs, your feet. Let the feeling of heaviness wash over you. Now imagine yourself on top of a flight of stairs. In the room below is everything you can be: Talented, beautiful, smart, etc. Now with every breath out you let go of your fears and take a step down the stairs. It doesn’t matter if you need 100 or 5 steps down. Just keep going until you feel you are there.
Take care of your body!
As with most other things, it is important to take care of your body as well as your mind. That means regular exercise, healthy eating and drinking, and getting enough sleep.
Ever since learning these things, I have not had an incident like my chemistry exam, and my last speaking exam was down-right pleasant!
I sincerely hope, you can use these tips to help you with your performance anxiety. If these do not help, you might want to consider getting professional help. Also, beta-blockers such as propranolol that lower the heart rate and block the effects of adrenaline are sometimes used by people with performance anxiety, although with these tips I have not needed them.
Thank you so much for reading this post, I really appreciate it. Let me know if you have an anxiety and what you do to overcome it in the comments below, and I’ll see you for my next post. Bye!