Performance anxiety is a fairly broad term. For some, it refers to the ability to perform well under pressure - like playing a sport, making a presentation, or excelling in public. For others, it refers to sexual performance, where those that have anxiety tend to worry about how they'll perform to such a degree that they either experience some type of sexual dysfunction or fail to enjoy their sexual experiences.
Both of these anxiety types are very different, which is why in this article, we'll explore the causes of both of them and what can be done to prevent them.
Relaxation and Anxiety Reduction Can Stop Performance Anxiety
While performance anxiety is a separate condition from other anxiety disorders, it has been established that those with traditional anxiety are more prone to performance anxiety. If you really want to stop performance anxiety forever, take my anxiety test now.
Anxiety and "Performance Anxiety"
Performance anxiety can be a serious problem. It can create other types of anxiety, including social anxiety, and in some cases, it can be a symptom of other anxiety disorders that bleed into your confidence in social situations. To learn more about your anxiety, take my anxiety test now.
No matter what you will need to address your overall anxiety if you want to also reduce your performance anxiety. Anxiety disorders create negative, nervous thinking, and so even if you "cure" your performance anxiety, you are still likely to have disabling thoughts that may affect your performance in the future.
But performance anxiety itself can have a variety of additional causes. Let's look at the two main types of performance anxiety and see what may cause it, and then go into detail about what can be done to prevent it.
Performance Anxiety Type 1 - Speeches and Performance Under Pressure
Athletes, presenters, and anyone that does anything under the public's eye may find themselves with performance anxiety. The causes of this are fairly simple:
- Mild social anxiety.
- Inexperience in public.
- Strong distaste for failure.
Anything in life can cause these emotions. Some people are born with a mild performance anxiety or grew up naturally shy, so the idea of talking in public is upsetting to them. Others are prone to distress over the idea of being judged, possibly because of experiences in the past, upbringing, or bullying.
As with all anxiety, it is difficult to know the exact cause, but performance anxiety is also self-sustaining because it creates a mindset that focuses only on mistakes and seeing "judgment" in others. One small mistake, even if no one notices, or one person in the audience that looks unhappy and all of your fears are reinforced, causing more performance anxiety to happen in the future.
Performance Anxiety Type 2: Sexual Performance
The origins of sexual performance anxiety are a bit more obvious. This is a society that puts considerable pressure on how people perform in the bedroom, the size of their genitals, the need to please the partner, and so on. Combine this with inexperience, a bad sexual experience, or perceived trouble at finding sexual partners, and it is no surprise that some people develop performance anxiety in sexual situations.
How the performance anxiety manifests may differ. The most common ways include:
- Impotence/Vaginal Dryness Some people may struggle to achieve erection or lubrication (depending on gender). The body needs to be sufficiently aroused in order to prepare itself for sex, and anxiety can prevent that arousal or make it difficult for the automatic functions to work properly.
- Premature Ejaculation Men may also experience premature ejaculation as a result of anxiety. This when the man finishes too early, or earlier than he intended. Premature ejaculation may be sexually satisfying on a physical level for some people, but others may get less enjoyment from completion (if they get any at all), and in both cases it can cause both personal distress and relationship distress that may increase the likelihood of performance anxiety in the future - and possibly the development of an anxiety disorder and self-confidence issues.
- Inability to Orgasm Finally, anxiety can prevent completion. Every person is affected by anxiety differently and in some cases its possible for anxiety to make it much more difficult to reach climax, if climax is reached at all.
No matter the effects of anxiety, there is no denying that anxiety itself can create more anxiety. The more you are worried about your performance, the more your performance suffers, and the more you worry about performance in the future.
Strategies to Reduce Public Performance Anxiety
Fighting performance anxiety in public situations - like a sporting event or speech - is something that primarily takes practice. The more and longer you practice the more these performances become instinctual. Athletes that struggle under pressure are more likely to perform the more they experience the pressure-filled situations. Those that are afraid of public speaking tend to improve when they have performed numerous speaking events.
However, a big part of how you address these issues comes from self-talk. Often the problem with this type of performance anxiety is that the brain tends to focus on the negative and tell itself worst case scenarios. You need to address the way you feel about your performance so that you are not sidelined by mistakes or stressed over the potential to make them. Consider the following:
- Pre- and Post- Presentation Positive Writing Exercises Since anxiety is a problem with negative thinking, one way to combat anxiety is to force yourself to think positively. An example of this type of exercise includes writing out 10 or 20 genuinely positive thoughts about your how you performed or will perform. It is not perfect, but it will stop you from focusing only on the negative.
- Positive Support You also need support from others. It is so easy to think about the negatives when you mess up - or when you have the potential to mess up. But if you can find people in your life that are always supportive, you won't care as much about any mistakes because others in your life will make things easier. Positive support is very helpful for this type of anxiety.
- Happy Distractions Much of performance anxiety is not what occurs at the event, but what occurs before and after it. Unfortunately, this is when the mind can wander into negative thoughts. Keeping yourself mentally active and busy prevents the mind from focusing on the negatives, especially if you can focus on more positive activities like going outdoors and spending fun time with friends.
- Practicing Under Pressure It is often hard to practice under pressure because practice itself rarely has that much pressure. But if you can get used to being under pressure situations, then when you actually face some type of pressure it won't cause as much anxiety. For example, if you are giving a speech, do it in front of smaller crowds and work your way up to the bigger ones. If you are playing sports, practice playing where people challenge you with noise and energy - just like you will experience in a big game. This will help you get used to some of the components of pressure situations, even if it doesn't resemble it completely.
These may not sound like the most effective strategies, but that's because performance anxiety is dependent on simply learning to think positively so that bad performances don't affect you and practicing to ensure that you are ready for any event.
Since so much performance anxiety comes from negative self-talk and psyching yourself out under pressure, the best thing you can do for yourself is:
- Learn how to perform your best at all times reduce your daily anxiety unrelated to your performance, and
- Make sure that you get used to what situations with a lot of pressure feel like.
Strategies to Reduce Sexual Performance Anxiety
Sexual performance anxiety tends to be a bit more complex because thinking about your sexual performance too much takes away from its enjoyment. Also, the body gets used to specific reactions. Men with premature ejaculation, for example, will not necessarily overcome the dysfunction immediately even if they overcome their performance anxiety because the body is trained to finish faster. It is a process, just as overcoming performance anxiety, in general, is a process.
Sex therapists can be a big help. But no matter what, consider the following:
- Tell Your Partner The hardest part of performance anxiety is trying to overcome it without your partner understanding your problem. Be confident enough in yourself to tell your partner that you have performance anxiety and it is something you need to work on. Many men and women find that the simple act of telling their sexual partner decreases the amount of performance anxiety they experience. Very few individuals will judge you if you share this anxiety, and if they do they're probably not your ideal sexual partner.
- Focus on Foreplay There's more than one way to enjoy yourself sexually. Have you and your partner focus on foreplay for a while and use sex as more of an afterthought. This will give you both an opportunity to have some enjoyment so that the completion itself isn't where all the pressure is. Women that struggle to get aroused because of anxiety often still enjoy foreplay, just as many men do. You can also consider a "no sex" rule, limiting yourself to just foreplay for a while as you get used to your partner's body.
- Stop/Start (Men) Men that prematurely ejaculate may find that learning to control completion is the best way to train their body not to ejaculate too early. Remember, part of this is behavioral training. If the body is used to completing right away, then it will continue to do so. Stop/Start involves waiting until you get closed to completion, then stopping until you feel calmer, then starting again until you are used to holding it. You can also do this by yourself in your spare time, but experience with a sexual partner helps.
These are just a few of the important steps for reducing performance anxiety.
Overall Cure For Performance Anxiety
No matter what type of performance anxiety you have, the truth is that performance anxiety is far more common in those that struggle with daily anxiety, because anxiety causes many of the negative thoughts and confidence issues that bleed into performance.
I've worked with many people with performance anxiety, teaching them tools to control their daily anxiety. Start with my free 7-minute anxiety test. It will show you how your anxiety compares to others and give you tools to control it.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Dec 07, 2017.