How Anxiety Impacts Your Performance

Being nervous before a performance is thought to elevate your play by increasing your focus and providing you with a boost of energy. But what happens when these nerves cross the line from being helpful to hurtful? When being nervous is taken up a notch, we find ourselves in the midst of anxiety. Just as nerves can be used to benefit us, anxiety inevitably hinders our play and makes reaching peak performance near impossible. Just how harmful is anxiety to your performance? That is what I aim to uncover by the end of this article.

Nerves vs Anxiety

How many times have you heard the phrase, “It’s good to be nervous?” I used to get so irritated when I was told this. How could being nervous, that gut-wrenching feeling which makes me want to run away, help in any way with my performance?

The truth is, nerves are good, but anxiety is not. What I was dealing with could be grouped into the category of performance anxiety. Confusing anxiety with nerves is where a lot of frustration is born.

For this reason, I want to start off this article by addressing the differences between nerves and performance anxiety. If we fail to separate the two, we run the risk of worsening our anxiety.

Before understanding performance anxiety to be different than the typical nervousness felt before a game, I held onto the idea that I must be weak. All these people were saying nerves are helpful, yet I felt crippled by the dread and worry that filled my mind.

Rather than gain motivation, focus, and energy (all the typical benefits of nerves), I became distracted, depressed, and lethargic. The border between performance anxiety and nervousness is quite thin, with one easily transforming into the other.

Nerves

First, let’s look at what it means to be nervous. Feeling nervous before an event is due to the body’s response to the performance. What happens is our brains produce stress hormones, such as adrenaline, to help us perform in an optimal way.

I would describe this feeling as being “amped up” before a competition. The nerves fuel the excitement you have and help to increase motivation and focus.

There is nothing wrong with feeling nervous. In fact, I would say having a bout of nerves shows the event or performance matters to you. It’s a good indication of the passion and meaning behind your performance.

We just have to be careful not to give the nerves too much attention. Otherwise, we run the risk of them becoming that which we all fear…anxiety.

Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety occurs when there is a deep fear regarding your ability to perform a task. I like that definition so much because it includes one of the greatest words that can be used to describe anxiety: fear.

When we have performance anxiety the nerves felt are much more intense. This is due to the fear that is driving the anxiety. You are afraid of failing and that puts your mind in a constant state of worry.

A great way to distinguish between anxiety and nerves is the frequency of the feelings.

When you become nervous, it is likely to occur the day of an event, or maybe the night before. However, with performance anxiety, these feelings are continuous, only to intensify as the event grows near.

As my nerves transformed into anxiety, this frequency was quite evident. I lived my life in a state of mild nervousness. As a game grew closer, my feelings grew more intense, almost to the point of panic.

When you find yourself consumed with the fear and dread that accompanies performance anxiety, you realize that this is not the type of nerves people are thinking of when they claim being nervous improves your performance.

Factors of Performance Anxiety

Now that a distinction has been made between nerves and performance anxiety, let’s take a look at the factors which make up performance anxiety. Here we will examine the process that occurs to create performance anxiety.

I am going to break it down into a three-step process. Though, once the initial anxiety is felt, it becomes a continuous loop. For the sake of simplicity, it’s best to see each factor and how they play into the whole experience of being anxious.

Factor #1: Cognition

The first factor is cognition. Cognition refers to the mental process of gaining knowledge or comprehending what is going on around you. In terms of performance anxiety, this is going to be a mental response to the stimulus that is driving our anxiety.

All feelings must be preceded by a thought. While you may not be aware of the thought (i.e., subconscious thoughts), they are taking place in reaction to your external surroundings.

To help make the process of cognition easier, I want to paint a scenario for you.

Let’s say you have a game coming up this Saturday. The game is going to be the stimulus for which you will have a cognitive response. Now, in terms of your cognition, there are multiple thoughts that you can experience.

Here are a few typical cognitive responses you can display:

  • Worrying about not being perfect.
  • Fear of making a mistake.
  • Fear of embarrassment.
  • Fear of negative self-evaluation.

You may deal with one, two, or all of these. Or maybe there are other concerns you experience when facing an upcoming game or performance. Whatever your cognitive response may be, it will be the first factor comprising performance anxiety.

Factor #2: Autonomic Arousal

The second factor is the autonomic arousal. Here you will experience your body’s response to the cognition. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for a lot of bodily processes, such as heart rate, respiration, and digestion.

This makes sense when we look at the different symptoms that are experienced when in an anxious state. Your heart rate will quicken, maybe you become short of breath, and your stomach becomes upset.

It makes it easier for me to think of this as our bodies saying, “Whoa, something is not right here.” We have perceived a threatening situation, such as a game or performance, and now our bodies are signifying to us we need to find a way out.

Factor #3: Behavioral Response

Now it’s time to find our way out of the threatening situation.

Up to this point, you’ve had worrisome thoughts fill your mind, this has triggered your autonomic nervous system, and now you have a decision to make. Do you face the threatening situation, or do you find a way to avoid it altogether?

The behavioral response is going to be the actions you exhibit following the two previous factors. Due to the desire we all have to feel safe and remain in a harmonious state, a natural response is avoidance.

The way this avoidance is accomplished is often one of the main culprits of a bad performance. Couple that with distracted thoughts along with physical symptoms and you begin to see how anxiety negatively impacts your performances.

Negative Impact of Anxiety

As an athlete or performer, your aim is to attain peak performance. When you struggle with anxiety, reaching such a level of play is incredibly difficult. The focus and relaxation required for optimal performance are hindered by the constant worries.

When taking a closer look at just how impactful anxiety is on our performances, factors two and three from above really come into play. The cognition discussed in the first factor does impact performance, but only through the following two factors. That is why it’s best to focus on them.

Mainly the behavioral response contributes to poor performances, though the physical symptoms felt due to autonomic arousal affect your performance as well. So, I want to go into a little more detail as to how the physical symptoms of anxiety and the behavioral response it causes negatively affect your performances.

Physical Symptoms

After experiencing the cognition due to a perceived threatening event, our bodies will respond with physical symptoms. This occurs leading up to the competition but holds especially true in the midst of your performance.

From my personal experience, the main way these physical symptoms impact performance is the distraction they cause. In an anxious state, the typical symptoms I show are trembling, rapid heartbeat, a shaky voice, and dizziness.

Here is what a typical anxious situation would look like for me. I would be up to bat and my whole body would tremble and I’d become a little dizzy. The dizziness then caused my vision to blur. All of a sudden, the chances of me hitting a baseball significantly drop.

Not only are my physical skills handicapped by the experiences, but my mind is completely distracted. Instead of focusing on my execution, my mind is locked onto these symptoms and how I can get rid of them.

The anxiety induced these symptoms and now my performance capability has dropped. That shows how impactful anxiety can be on your play.

Behavioral Response

With the physical symptoms of performance anxiety, the impact is seen in the moment. The physical symptoms occur and that is what causes a drop in performance. The act of competing becomes more difficult when dealing with these autonomic changes.

With the behavioral response, the impact occurs later and creates a psychological change.

When our nerves cross over into anxiety, the feelings that we associate with the event we are anxious for are all negative. Our minds are consumed with worries leading up to the performance, during the performance, and after the performance.

This level of anxiety allows for no reprieve from the continual negative thoughts flooding our minds. So, the natural response is avoidance. We seek to avoid the situation that causes such pain.

We know that the number one behavioral response is avoidance. The question now is, how will you display and act out an avoidance pattern. Being someone who dealt with performance anxiety and sought to avoid the pain, I know how frustrating this is.

Because here’s the truth, just because we want to avoid the anxiety-inducing situation does not mean we want to quit our sport or whatever it is we do. This is where you see the true impact take form as self-sabotage.

Self-sabotage is basically when you take part in an activity to undermine your own success. In an avoidance pattern, this becomes the best way to indirectly avoid anxiety. And in terms of anxiety impacting our performances, it becomes clear how damaging it is once we adopt self-sabotaging behavior.

There are multiple ways self-sabotaging can occur. Here are a few of the most common forms and how they affect your performance.

Perfectionism

As a perfectionist, you will never be satisfied with your performance. When you experience anxiety, it can become normal to overanalyze and second guess yourself. You are so focused on not messing up, that you ironically always find something you did wrong.

Now, this impacts your performance by driving down your confidence by only seeing yourself for your mistakes. This form of self-sabotage takes a toll on your psyche, leaving you unable to achieve success.

You’ve created an unattainable ideal of perfection, one you will never see yourself attain.

Procrastination

Another form of self-sabotage is procrastination. When we are wanting to avoid a situation, we can sabotage our chances of success by pushing off the work that needs to be done.

Also, by procrastinating, we can make it feel as if the event is farther in the future. Therefore, we have no need to feel anxious about it in the present moment.

Poor Performances

It goes without saying that poor performances are part of life. But, when we are caught in an avoidance pattern, performing poorly becomes a way out. If you subconsciously wish to avoid a game, since it causes you so much anxiety, a safe alternative would be getting benched.

This way, you do not have to quit the sport, but still get the reprieve from the anxiety-producing situation. The worse you perform, the more likely it is you’ll be benched.

By seeking to avoid the anxiety, we partake in all sorts of self-sabotaging behavior. These three, combined with any other ones you may exhibit, seek to undermine our performances. While they can do a good job of helping avoid anxiety, our performances take a drastic hit as a result.

Final Thoughts

Nerves are thought to increase performance, but when they venture into the realm of performance anxiety, the opposite holds true. The constant worries that accompany anxiety are detrimental to anyone seeking peak performance.

Your performance can be impacted in two ways by performance anxiety. First, the physical symptoms can make the act of competing very difficult. Second, the common behavioral response of avoidance leads to self-sabotage.

Both of these are hurtful and show how negative of an impact performance anxiety has on your performance.

Do you struggle with performance anxiety? Have you seen a decrease in your performances as a result?

I hope this article was helpful and you gained a deeper understanding of the dangers of performance anxiety. If you liked the article, please share it so others can benefit from the information provided as well.

If you have any questions regarding performance anxiety or any other performance psychology topic, please feel free to reach out to me.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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