Have you ever stood up in class about to do a presentation or been to a speaking 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 is 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 am not planning on going back anytime soon, 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 the second speaking exam that I figured out I needed professional help to get through the rest of Gymnasium.
It was a chemistry exam, and I was not at all confident. Our teacher had never been good at giving constructive criticism or guiding us through the subjects. Additionally, we got our assignments back several months after we had handed them in, which meant we had forgotten all about it, at all it said at the bottom of the last page was “read”… sometimes, there was even a “right” or “wrong” somewhere in the assignment, but having forgotten all about what we wrote in the first place, it was damn near impossible to learn anything from it. 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 I could be examined in, 3 of which I felt relatively confident about. The other 4, however… Not so much.
And guess what happened: I got the absolute worst subject possible for me. It was the oldest of all the subjects and I didn’t even have a proper report on the attached experiment from when we did it the first time 1000 years ago (or so it felt). The instant 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 my heart was in my throat. My teacher collected me and we entered the classroom where the exam was to happen. At this point, my heart was halfway out my mouth, which is perhaps why I found it so difficult to speak. The actual examination was 15 minutes long, and I swear on my precious collection of shoes that those were the longest 15 minutes of my entire life. And holy crap never before had I spoken in such a tiny voice. Most of the time people tell me to quiet down, not speak up. So, this was me being completely out of character. My teacher and the external examiner 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. It was, however, only just a passing grade, 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 (and still haven’t) 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 the so-called “exam guidance”, which was held by my school’s counsellor. We were a bunch of girls, who over the course of 4 afternoons learned how to conquer and calm our thoughts. We were taught that it’s all up in our heads. That our thoughts get out of control and spiral towards sheer panic. Let me give you an example of what 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: Get a good grade or die!
We have now come to the point in this blog post, where I give you some tips on how to stop yourself from going down such a spiral of negative and destructive thoughts:
Acknowledge your anxiety!
Accept the fact that you have performance anxiety. The first step towards correcting a problem is (and always will be) acknowledging the fact that there is a problem.
The more 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 do your absolute best. If you are too calm, it means you don’t really care about the result, 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 something in between these, called butterflies-in-the-stomach nervousness, which is what you want to have.
Convince yourself that you’ll do your best and that that’s okay. Before you enter the examination room or enter the stage, stare into a wall (or even better, a mirror) 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.
Visualise your success!
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 meditation as these are great tools 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 exhale you let go of your fears and take a step down the stairs. It doesn’t matter if you need 100 or 5 steps to get there. 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 exercising regularly, eating healthy, drinking enough water, and getting enough sleep.
I have never had an exam or another incident similar to this ever since learning how to control my thoughts and conquering my performance anxiety.
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 by following these few tips I have not needed them.
Thank you so much for reading this post, I really appreciate it. Let me know if you have any anxiety and what you do to overcome it in the comments below, and I’ll see you for my next post. Bye!