How Do You Cope With Performance Anxiety?

My performance anxiety began without rhyme or reason, and carries on without the relief of an end date. Whether I am taking a test or running a race or meeting someone I admire, I always fall short.

My knees have buckled on a wooded cross-country trail. My sweaty palms have warped the pages of countless math tests. Hours of practice seem to become irrelevant in an instant, and even the sacred den of practice itself has become obstructed by nerves. With such an anxiety, you begin to pull yourself into a vortex of self-doubt, begin to discount accomplishment. Once articulate and thorough — and hell, even witty — and then poof! All gone. And replaced with what?

For a while the anxiety seemed to align rather nicely with my naive conception of the Creative Other  — a figure who is both elusive and somewhat troubled. My logic was this: I want to be a writer, writers are troubled; maybe this anxiety signifies some deeper, more creatively-rewarding intelligence. Maybe, I thought, I could get a decent sentence out of all of this.

Only I didn’t. I just got stuck.

Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of having such an affliction is that our society is very much conducive to keeping things together, even if just in appearance. Everyone else, it seems, is functioning with a composed ease. Feeling unwelcome to reveal any shortcomings, I internalized my anxiety until I considered it an attribute of inconvenient importance to personal identity. It became no different than my crooked pinkies or uneven nostrils — markers of things I’ve really had no choice in having. Only this one less visible.

In that way, anxiety thrives like a bad habit: the combination of a stubborn mind and a closed mouth really only perpetuates an issue. But you and I both know that in order to live a life of fulfillment, we cannot let these sorts of debilitating mind games obviate the passion, intellect and resourcefulness I like to think we possess. And the only way to truly work through a matter is to address it honestly, seeking advice where necessary. So, how do you go about shushing the devil on your shoulder? How do you ensure all of your practice pays off?

Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis, inspired by Kenzine Vol. 2; Wearing Paula Mendoza necklace and Christie Nicolaides earrings


  • Kerrith

    I work in a high pressure industry and recently proposed a QI project, on a whim, to a really important director within my company. He loved the idea and asked for a formal proposal. I had so much anxiety about the pitch, or performance, part of this project that I enlisted my amazingly smart and confident friend to be my partner in this endeavor. I was thinking a “buddy system” approach might help. As I expected, I froze when we were sitting around the conference table, and she swoped in to make sense of the mess that was spewing out of my mouth. I too have thought that this is not the worst thing ever. I think in large part because so many people are talking openly about these types of issues now. I think it’s one of the reasons I love listening to Monocycle so much. It helps to hear others talk through issues and admit it’s not so easy.

  • Jackie

    Good to know that there are others out there with the same kind of sometimes debilitating performance anxiety that I get! Also, crooked pinkie fingers! Thought that was just something that ran in my family. Beautiful writing.

  • Performance anxiety sucks, for sure! I find I experience it worst when my mind wanders and decides that I’m going to fail. My thoughts can trail off and build up. Best thing to do is 1) be aware my mind is trailing off 2) try to bring it back to the present moment, focus intently. 3) if that fails, chant a tiny mantra like “sat nam” true self, or “i can do this”, it will help bring your mind back to the task 4) focus on your breath. our thoughts follow the speed of our breath so if you can slow it down a bit, that helps a lot. Much love xo.

  • Whenever I’m feeling “performance anxiety” I imagine I’m flying over a canyon. I’m scared of heights, so even imagining myself over open air sounds petrifying, but then I make myself think “I’m flying, not falling” which a) makes me laugh at myself which breaks some tension, and b) actually really works, because then I’ve defused the anxiety into my fear of heights (or, rather, a fear of falling), and that fear of heights can be stopped by imagining that I’m flying.

  • I’m a professional musician and I used to be able to feed off and harness that nervous energy. I could do it because I was constantly in high-pressure situations and it was just another day at the office.

    However, these days, I don’t find myself in as many situations like that but when I am, I need to be “on.” So when those nerves became a liability instead of a catalyst, I got a prescription for Inderal – a beta blocker – which is widely used by musicians.

    You still feel a bit of the nervous energy inside, but it doesn’t manifest itself physically – no leg or hand shaking uncontrollably. Also, if something does go wrong or not quite according to plan, it doesn’t affect you the slightest bit and you can still focus.

  • I have been told a million times (not bragging, I swear!) that I have my life in order. That I appear to have my shit together and everything figured out. I chuckle and internally I think: “what the f*** are they thinking?? I’m a mess all the time”. I filled with self doubt, I lose sleep over the tiniest things, and I am at a constant edge – fearing failure.

    I have brought this up with a couple of my family members, and they all said that if the world thought I was in control, then that’s all that mattered. Sort like “fake it till you make it” stuff. But the biggest problem I have with that is that it has meant that I have kept myself from sharing some of my worries, in hopes that people do not lose that perception of me. So people think “Denisse is fine! We don’t need to worry!” and in reality I am an emotional wreck and seriously need someone to share my woes with.

    • Sarah

      This is all so familiar to me. It’s quite eerie realising how different your self perception is to what you actually project to the world, and it seems there’s no way to reconcile them!

  • Elizabeth Tamkin

    It’s really weird. It’s a weird sensation and I think everyone must feel it differently, though many of us can empathize. When I get this sensation often times I blush. Weird right? And then everyone knows it. I stutter, I blush and because I am aware of these side effects, it spirals even further. As I’ve grown older and more comfortable with myself, it has happened less and less. But I do remember in High School, when you absolutely DON’T want people to notice your discomfort, it happened a lot a lot. It even often happened more often when I was hormonal. Strange. I think by giving yourself a pep talk: literally, “I’m the shit. Stand strong,” it helps you. Confidence pushes this anxiety down a little bit, at least for me.

  • Timothy Bryan

    Controlling anxiety is something I live with daily. It may be difficult. First, you’ll need to learn what kind of anxiety disorders you have actually and a visit to your medical professional can resolve that.

    It is possible to google it for “anxiety relief Stephen Marley guide” to get the method where I learned all about helping with anxiety

    Stick with it!

  • Good to know others feel the same way as I do….everything you said in the last paragraph I have come to realize & totally agree with. It’s just harder said than done #sos