Overcoming Performance Anxiety

If you suffer from performance jitters, thinking ahead about your anxiety ?may actually help you relax?

Credit: Flickr/Meredith Farmer

Research has shown that writing down worries can help ease performance anxiety

Whether it’s performance anxiety over school exams, making a presentation for a high-stakes business concern or taking part in a sporting competition, most people suffer pre-performance jitters

Traditionally, it’s been suggested that we not focus on anxiety lest it affect outcome. But now, research suggests it might not be a bad idea to do just that.

A new study published in the journal Science shows that students can combat test anxiety and improve performance by writing about their worries before the exam begins.

Write Down What Worries You

Dr. Sian Beilock at the University of Chicago found that students who were prone to test anxiety improved their exam scores by nearly one grade point after they were given 10 minutes to write about what was causing them fear. It’s believed the writing exercise allows students to unload their anxieties, thus freeing up brainpower needed to complete the test more successfully.

Dr. Beilock says even though teachers may not offer the chance to write about pre-exam worries, students should plan to take the time themselves. Likewise, she contends that doing so before other pressure-filled situations, such as before giving a speech or a business presentation, would similarly help to improve the outcome.

In other research, Dr. Beilock has shown that high-pressure situations can deplete a part of the brain’s processing power known as working memory. This is the memory necessary for many everyday activities, allowing us to jot down things that need to be kept in mind as we go through our day.

When we’re stressed, this area of our brain becomes overburdened. It’s no wonder we feel disorganized and less productive when we’re anxious or stressed.

Writing down feelings makes some sense, since journaling has been proved to be an effective way to decrease worries in those who suffer from emotional or traumatic stresses.

Tips for Decreasing Performance Anxiety

Dr. Beilock is the author of a book entitled Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To, which gives advice on how to avoid underperforming when the pressure is on. While some sections are academic, the practical tips may give you that extra edge to help you get ahead.

Other strategies may also help decrease performance anxiety:

  • Being physically ready is key. Make sure you get enough sleep and are well rested before an important event.
  • Think positively and expect to do well.
  • Learn simple breathing techniques that can help calm an upset stomach and racing heart. Breathing exercises also help you relax and focus.

Integrative medicine specialist Dr. Andrew Weil has an excellent series of breathing exercises on his website.

Your Health with Dr. Rhonda Low airs weekdays during CTV News at Five and CTV News at Six.

Originally published in TV Week. For daily updates, subscribe to the free TV Week e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the weekly magazine.