If you've ever stuttered when you were giving a speech, or double-faulted on match point, or humiliated yourself on a first date, you know what it feels like to be sabotaged by your body during high-voltage moments. But you'd likely be surprised by why that happens. "Ironically, it's people with more cognitive ability, more working memory, who tend to choke under pressure," says Sian Beilock, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago who has written extensively about performance anxiety. "The pressure makes high achievers perform more like their lower-achieving counterparts," she says. Scientists are still studying why, but it seems anxiety eats away at high performers' resources.
At the right levels, stress is a good thing. "Stress means you care," adds Mick Mack, a professor of sports psychology at the University of Northern Iowa. "It can motivate you and make you work harder." To use stress to your advantage, recognize the physical symptoms – rapid heart rate, shallow breathing – and remind yourself of stress's value. It may seem obvious, but being conscious of symptoms is the first step toward calming down.
We all know it keeps us healthy in general, but Michael McKee, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, suggests daily workouts to combat anxiety and boost confidence. "I like people to do opposites: Cardio to get your heart beating, then take 15 to 20 minutes to relax. This can be done with yoga or guided CD meditations." Researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that meditation can improve your focus – beneficial when preparing for a stressful event.
The more you've practiced, whether it be your golf swing or a wedding toast, the more ingrained the task will be, and the more confidence you will have in your abilities. "Today's preparation is tomorrow's success," says McKee. It may seem like a no-brainer, but it's surprising how few people actually set aside time and assume responsibility for the outcome of a big project. "You earn the right to be confident through hard work and preparation," says Mack. "Get away from the fear coping mechanism. Fear makes you want to run. We want to do that when we're stressed. But to be most effective, you need to take steps to problem-solve."
Negative ruminating may prime you to fail. "If you think you'll perform badly, you'll get anxious," says McKee. "Then if you do fail, you'll confirm your negative beliefs and lead to a loop of self-doubt." Try to notice negative expectations and exile them. Acknowledge your fears, but force yourself to visualize successful outcomes. "I have my clients project an image of their best selves," says McKee. "I have them imagine the nervousness they might feel, then back off to a stress level they feel is optimal." To stay in the moment, he recommends visualization exercises: Picture an object for a period of time and describe it in detail. "Anxious people often worry about being judged," adds McKee. "But what's important is your involvement in the task." In other words, getting into the zone.
Learn From Your Mistakes
Taking ownership of previous missteps can give you some control over anxiety. "Saying my boss gave me too much work and that's why I'm flustered – that doesn't help," says McKee. "If my clients have performed badly, I ask them to figure out what they could have done differently."