Anxiety happens to us more often than we would like to admit. Spectators and commentators of sport often say someone is “choking” when a big mistake is made, or that someone is prone to mistakes under pressure. But the truth is everyone is prone to mistakes under pressure! Stress and anxiety are a natural part of sport and life. Making the game winning shot, speaking in front of a big group, or writing an important exam are all high pressure situations in which we sometimes fail to live up to the moment. Research shows pressure significantly affects our performance. For example, statistics from the FIFA world cup have shown that players taking penalty shots to keep their team in the tournament in the knock-out stages average 30-40% conversion rates, compared to the group stage, where conversion rates are 70-80%. Similarly, statistics from the 2003-2006 NBA season show that season averages for successful free throw percentages are 76%. However, when teams are within 1 point of each other and there is one minute left in the game, those averages drop down to 69%! So even the best performers will experience anxiety, and it is one-dimensional to think that some people are just “chokers”.
Pressure affects our physiology, as well as our psychology. When we are stressed or feel under pressure, our heart rate rises, blood flow increases, our breathing becomes shallow, which sends less oxygenated blood to the brain which of course affects our cognition. This results in being distracted, high arousal, loss of concentration, negative self-talk, and ultimately reduced performance. So how can we tackle performance anxiety effectively? The first step is to better understand how the stress response occurs in our body.
Studies have shown that there are two pathways through which the amygdala's fear responses can be triggered: a fast "low road", and a slower "high road". The two paths have different conclusions. Say you were walking through the woods and you hear some rustling in the bushes. The "low road", which is constantly on, scanning the environment for a threat, identifies the noise and movement to be similar to that of an animal, such as a dangerous snake, and thus triggers an immediate fear response, flooding the body with cortisol, adrenaline, etc. The slower "high road" however, is more of the thinking and processing route which determines that the object you were afraid of is in fact just a harmless squirrel. This system is leftover from our ancestors when external threats were more real. Having a sensitive stress response is very useful when scanning for predators in the bushes. The ones who responded quicker with a fight or flight, would be the ones to survive. But this doesn't serve us too well in modern times when most of our threats are imagined. Despite this flaw we have, there are ways to train the brain to become more aware of when anxiety is triggered in our bodies, and learn to combat fear with an appropriate response.
Performance anxiety specifically happens for a variety of reasons, but there are two main sources for its occurrence. The first one is our low road activation, where perhaps sometime in our lives we had a moment where we experienced stress and anxiety, such as making a bad mistake in front of a lot of fans, or stumbling in your presentation at work. This experience has now been logged somewhere deep inside of us, and now if something remotely resembles that previous experience it becomes a trigger. So next time you get up to do a presentation, the trigger activates and sends a distress signal to our hypothalamus which in turn activates our sympathetic nervous system, or the “fight or flight” response. And so we are flooded with stress hormones, our heart rate rises, we get sweaty palms, cotton mouth, and all the other joyful symptoms of anxiety.
The second source of anxiety is based on an inner dialogue going on between your own two ears. A lot of us are not trained enough to become aware of the things we tell ourselves on a daily basis. Our inner chatter tends to be negative, highly judgmental and critical. It is a narrative we tell ourselves about the outcome. This is where the high road is kicking in, and interpreting our anxiety response as a threat and it perpetuates itself into a cycle of anxiety and judgement for having the anxiety, which in turn worsens the symptoms. There is a civil war going on inside of us in these states, and it manifests itself into performance anxiety.
The training I do with people who experience performance anxiety is to become more aware of (1) the story they are telling themselves in regards to the anxiety, and (2) get better at detecting symptoms of anxiety, and learn to work with it, rather than against it. Understanding the narrative you are telling yourself surrounding anxiety, as well as being better able to see anxiety as something you are experiencing in this moment rather than something you are (an anxious person), is key to having a successful performance.
- Oversimplified visual of the cycle of performance anxiety. A past failure/mistake becomes a trigger for any similar situation that looks or feels like that past memory. The low road system flags this as a threat because it is a trigger, which also creates a negative narrative that because of it being a threat. The two roads interact here affecting one another, and ultimately we get symptoms of performance anxiety.
CHANGING THE NARRATIVE
First off, we must understand that performance anxiety is normal! It happens. When you are performing at a high level there is bound to be stress. So get rid of any judgement about yourself or thoughts that there is something specifically wrong with you. Everyone deals with it from time to time and it is just something we have to become more open to talk about if were going to overcome it. So that is the first step in the process, knowing that it is just something that occurs when you are performing at a high level.
The next thing is to change the narrative you are telling yourself surrounding the anxiety. Commit to a mindfulness practise where you train yourself to detach from your thoughts, and look at them more objectively. Too often we see thoughts such as “I will always fail”, “I am not good enough” as absolute fact. But in reality, these are just thoughts. You have the ability to give them weight, or choose to focus on something else. Sometimes these thoughts have developed through a strong identity with the specific activity that you are performing in. We have created a story where the lines are blurred between what I do, with who I am. When we identify ourselves too much as an athlete, worker, etc., every mistake tends to be linked fundamentally with who you are as a person. This creates tension and a false existential threat, when really it is just because we have failed to de-couple these two elements. Your sport, or activity is just something you DO, and have fun DOING, and does not correlate with who you are as a person. The more we understand this, the less anxiety we experience. So to begin, ask yourself a few fundamental questions:
Why am I experiencing anxiety in this moment? Have I experienced something similar in the past? How are they related?
What are my triggers for anxiety? Being watched? High expectations?
Is this threat real, or just existential (ego)?
What are the consequences of me failing? Are they really that severe? Is my life over?
Am I anxious because I care what other people think? Why are others opinions so important to me?
When we become more aware of the story we tell ourselves about why certain things happen, we can start to see patterns and perhaps even holes in the plot. We become better at catching ourselves in negative storylines and stop the anxiety manifesting itself into the physical symptoms early. This is where we create a new narrative, and see anxiety as an experience you are having, and not something that is directly associated with who you are.
FLIGHT, FREEZE, FIGHT, OR FLOW
So now that we can begin to become more aware of how certain thoughts and emotions can trigger anxiety, we must also fine tune our instrument of detecting symptoms of anxiety early, and taking the right steps to work with it, rather than against it. Once our sympathetic nervous system is activated the stress hormones are already in the system so it is not possible to magically flush them out. Instead we can learn to channel that energy in appropriate ways.
Our initial reaction will be to flee or freeze under the pressure, and again that is completely normal. But with training we learn to fight with it, and then use it as a way to get into flow. The way we do this is to train ourselves in the “tense body”. What this means is to find out what your triggers are and become more familiar with them. So if public speaking gives you the flight or freeze response even when you are practising at home, keep training in that feeling until it becomes comfortable. If it is too anxiety provoking at first, bring it down a notch and lower the challenge. Once you feel comfortable, bring back up again. We must change our relationship with being uncomfortable. Welcome it and become more aware of what's going on in the body. Where exactly do you feel tension? What is that experience like? Just notice any changes and become more familiar with them. This is how we begin to fight back against anxiety by recognizing it and being curious with it. In this way we learn to fight with the anxiety rather than against it.
One of my favourite quotes that helps me when I experience anxiety is a quote by Baltasar Gracian - “Let the first impulse pass. Wait for the second”. Notice that initial feeling of anxiety, such as butterflies in your stomach, and realize that is just your system turning “on” in response to the situation. Our bodies often mistake excitement with anxiety, as both share similar chemistry. So one way to help ease the transition is to tell yourself you are excited, rather than anxious, and channel that nervous energy down a more productive path.
“Let the first impulse pass. Wait for the second."
The next step is to invest in breath training to bring our activation down. Breathing is the most effective way to lower our heart rate and bring the attention to the task rather than the threat. One very effective tactic is to use box breathing. The Navy Seals use box breathing (or tactical breathing) to help combat the stress of a life or death situation, as it activates our parasympathetic nervous system which is our relaxation response. Other methods such as heart rate variability (HRV) training and biofeedback are a great way to become more aware of slight changes in our bodies response to stress and having active ways to bring it to where we want, and achieve a flow state. There is no flow without struggle, as even neurochemically we need the stress hormones to activate the endorphins that accompany flow states. Start to see the feelings of anxiety as a good thing, as your body is preparing you for an opportunity to become hyper focused and vigilant in the face of a “threat”. With time we become better at using the stress as a platform to get into flow. So instead of fleeing, we stay and fight. The more we train ourselves in situations that put is in these anxious moments, the more accustomed we become to it. Anxiety stems from the unknown, so find ways to make the unknown, known. Simulating stressful environments is a good way to do this, as it gives you the confidence knowing that you have been placed in this situation before.
So to recap: Understand and become aware of the narrative you are telling yourself, and then change the story. Make it a more productive plot. You are not anxious, you are just experiencing anxiety in this moment. Secondly, invest in mindfulness and/or breath training to help combat the symptoms of anxiety. These two elements go together and with practise you will be better able to cope with the pressure of high level performance.
And remember, feel the force, don’t force the feel!