Mindset Mondays: Anxiety & Performance

Mindset Mondays: Anxiety & Performance

May 27, 2024

Anxiety and Performance: A Love-Hate Relationship

You might be thinking, “I don’t suffer from anxiety, so why should I care?” Fair point, but here’s the thing: everyone experiences anxiety at some level. To manage it effectively, it’s crucial to understand what it actually is. 

So, let’s talk about anxiety and performance, shall we? Anxiety often gets a bad rap, but it’s not necessarily the villain in your story of epic fails and glorious wins. In fact, anxiety is really just a negative interpretation of what’s essentially arousal. And before you get any wild ideas, arousal in this context is all about your physiological state – things like an increased heart rate and sweating. Anxiety, however, adds some pesky thoughts into the mix to really spice things up.

Sources of Stress and Anxiety

First off, let’s look at where this anxiety might be coming from. There are personal factors, like trait anxiety (that’s just the fancy way of saying you’re naturally a bit of a worrywart), self-esteem, fear of failure, and perfectionism. And then there are situational factors, like how important the task is to you (centrality) and your confidence level (self-efficacy).

Imagine you’re about to give a presentation. If you’re a bit of a perfectionist with low self-esteem, you’re probably already sweating bullets. Add in the fact that this presentation could make or break your career (high centrality), and you’re in a full-blown anxiety storm.

The Effects of Anxiety: Choking and Paralysis by Analysis

So what happens when anxiety decides to crash your performance party? You might experience something called "choking." No, this doesn’t mean you literally start gagging in the middle of your presentation. Choking is when your decision-making capability takes a nosedive. Your mind gets so bogged down by stress that you can’t think straight, leading to a phenomenon called "paralysis by analysis." You overthink everything to the point where you can’t make any decisions at all.

Attention Field: The Narrowing Effect

When you’re relaxed, your attention field is broad. You’re like a Jedi, filtering out irrelevant information and focusing on what matters. But crank up the anxiety, and your attention field narrows. Suddenly, you’re filtering out both the good and the bad, leaving you clueless about key things happening around you. You start feeling rushed, and making decisions becomes as easy as solving a Rubik’s cube blindfolded.

Conscious Reinvestment Hypothesis

Here’s another way anxiety can mess with you: the conscious reinvestment hypothesis (Master, 1992). When you’re learning a new skill, you go from conscious processing (thinking about every step) to unconscious processing (doing it without thinking). But throw anxiety into the mix, and you regress back to your early, clumsy conscious self. This overthinking leads to even worse performance.

Perception is Key

Now, here’s the kicker: the amount of anxiety you feel isn’t the real issue (G. Jones, 1995). It’s all about how you perceive it. If you believe that anxiety is a performance booster, you might actually perform better. If you see it as an inhibitor, well, good luck with that.

Take sports, for example. Some athletes thrive under pressure, feeling that the stress sharpens their focus and energises them. Others crumble, convinced that the same stress is a sign they’re about to flop. It’s all in the mind, really.

Actionable Tips

Here are three practical tips you can start employing today to manage your anxiety and increase your performance.

  1. Reframe your thoughts

    Let me give you a taste of my own journey. Picture me, a bundle of nerves, gearing up for a public speaking event. My hands are shaking, my heart is racing, and my mind is a whirlwind of “What if I mess up?” thoughts. Classic anxiety attack, right? But I’ve learned to reframe it. Instead of seeing these symptoms as a sign of impending doom, I tell myself they’re just my body gearing up for a stellar performance. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but hey, it’s a work in progress.

  2. Set Realistic Goals

    Break down big tasks into smaller, manageable goals. This can help reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed and increase your sense of control.

    Example: If you have a big project due, divide it into smaller tasks and set deadlines for each part. Completing these smaller tasks can build confidence and keep anxiety at bay.

  3. Prior Planning and Preparation

    Spend time planning and preparing for your task or challenge well in advance. This helps build confidence and reduces the uncertainty that often fuels anxiety.

    Example: If you’re training for a 10K race, start by mapping out a training plan several weeks in advance. Include a mix of long runs, speed work, and rest days. Visit the race course beforehand to familiarise yourself with the terrain and any challenging sections. The night before the race, lay out your running gear, pin your bib to your shirt, and prepare a nutritious pre-race meal. This thorough preparation ensures you wake up on race day feeling ready and confident, significantly reducing any performance anxiety.


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