Most of us think of performance anxiety a being something that happens in the bedroom during romantic encounters, and they think of it as something that affects men. Performance anxiety by this understanding is when a man is about to have sex, but due to anxiety is unable to get an erection.
This is an accurate description of performance anxiety, but it is not the only one and it is actually much broader term that covers many areas of our life. Performance anxiety is finding yourself unable to use the toilet in public, or unable to perform in your sport because you are being watched, for some people it might even be a failure to eat in public – all of which can of course be quite crippling and have very negative effects on your life.
What Is Performance Anxiety?
Performance anxiety basically then, is any situation in which you feel anxiety when ‘performing’. This does not mean performing in front of an audience or a crowd necessarily, but may mean just performing a simple task in public. The fear comes from the fact that you might not be able to perform the task adequately and that you would then be judged by others as a result. This is then watch actually causes you to freeze and makes you unable to perform creating a vicious cycle. For example then, in the bedroom you would be preparing to have sex and would worry that an embarrassing situation would be if you couldn’t get an erection – this worry would then kill any erection that you had or would have had, and the longer it went the worse this would become. Then when you next came to have sex, that experience would be fresh in your mind and you would be unable to perform again. Another example is urinating in public toilets – here you might worry that if you took a long amount of time to urinate then other people might think you were strange. That concern then would mean you wouldn’t be able to go, and as a result almost all men have at some point ended up leaving the toilet and pretending they went when really they still need it.
Getting Over Performance Anxiety
There are many different ways to get over performance anxiety, and different schools of psychology have different approaches based on their view of how the human mind works. Different methods will work for different people but it is worth trying a few to see which works best. Here we will look at a few approaches:
Behaviourists believe that the human brain and our behaviour is made up of a range of different ‘associations’ in our brain. In performance anxiety then, you would associate going to the toilet or trying to perform sexually wit failure and with nerves. As a result then you would find that you froze up when you came to do those things. In order to overcome this, behaviourists would teach that the individual should create new associations. One way to do this is with forced exposure – whereby you would be forced into the situation to learn that it’s not so bad. For example then if you had anxiety when you were public speaking you would go up on the stage to speak in front of others and do so regularly. You might even purposefully allow the performance to go wrong, so as to experience the worst case scenario and see that it isn’t so bad. Behaviourism also shows individuals how then can create new associations – positive ones to replace their previous negative experiences. To do this you would simply give yourself a reward system whereby each time you performed you would reward yourself in some way – perhaps with a sweet or praise. This way you would come to associate positive feelings with that behaviour.
The biological school of psychology looks at the biological aspects of our behaviour and which drugs and hormones etc contribute to the way we act. Beta blockers are a kind of drug used in treating stage fright. These attach to the beta receptors in the heart, lungs, brain and elsewhere and thereby minimise the effects of the nervous system by blocking out adrenaline thereby removing the ‘fight or flight’ syndrome that is responsible for your nerves. However there is some debate as to whether this is a positive way to treat performance anxiety and this is particularly due to their side effects such as hallucinations, dizziness, drowsiness and nightmares. Another point is that in some ways the fight or flight response is actually a positive effect and not necessarily something that you should want to completely remove.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT is a type of psychological therapy that aims to ‘reprogram’ the brain. This it achieves through the use of language and thoughts and it is believed that ‘negative thoughts’ are responsible for range of anxiety disorders. For example with performance anxiety you might think things like ‘other people will think I’m stupid’, ‘I can never do this’, ‘this is so embarrassing’ – all of which only worsens the problem. Better then is to replace these negative thoughts with positive ones such as ‘it doesn’t matter if this goes wrong’, ‘nobody cares if I can do this or not’ or ‘I can just try again later’. This will then limit the anxiety.
To identify your destructive thought patterns CBT teaches the use of ‘mindfulness’ which is a type of mediation wherein you are taught to ‘listen’ to your own thoughts and to ‘watch’ them pass by like ‘clouds’. This way you are able to see their contents and replace them with good ones. You can also use positive affirmations which is the act of repeatedly saying the positive things that you want to replace the bad thoughts with like a mantra. E.g. repeating ‘it doesn’t matter what people think’. This way, you will start to think of these things naturally as it becomes habit.
The main thing to try and achieve with this technique is to try and diminish the importance of the views of others. When you are in the toilet then remember that people really don’t care how long you take – have you ever judged someone for taking too long? And at the same time, what is the genuine worst that can come from them judging you? It’s not like they’re going to see you ever again.