How to handle anxiety when under pressure?
January 11, 2012 11:24 PM   Subscribe

How can you handle performing under lots of pressure? Is it possible to practice this? How can I get rid of my losing attitude and think more positively?

Today I took my motorcycle riding test at the DMV and failed. It was through no lack of skill, as I had been practicing and could get through the thing no problem. Yet when the pressure rose and I was actually testing (one mistake and the test is over), I could feel my heart racing and I screwed up. This has happened to me in other situations: Sex, public speaking, an important mid-term, playing video games... Sometimes part of me expects to fail and then I actually do things to make that a reality. I can often overcome this by just practicing a lot, but that's not always an option. What can you do to overcome this or deal with it?
posted by cman to Human Relations (13 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Short term, fast-acting anti-anxiety medication, and I am not joking. That's the shortcut/bandaid.
posted by cairdeas at 11:35 PM on January 11, 2012

Practice, yes, but practice under duress. The practice's pressure can either be imaginary or external, like bringing in others to hear/judge whatever before the real trial, but you have to be able to practice despite and with the debilitations of anxiety etc... This lets you know where your fault lines are, and by practicing, how to power over or through these weaknesses.
We all have these weaknesses, but practice allows you to coast over the gaps best of all.

I just had this conversation earlier today, and someone suggested beta-blockers or eating a lot of bananas, however, I think that's no substitute for really getting to know your performance anxiety brain, and how to perform around its deficits. Therefore: PRACTICE.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 11:52 PM on January 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

As someone who failed their driving test once (got it on the second) and motorcycle test three times (got it on the fourth) I empathise. It was nerves, not lack of skill or knowledge that let me down.

My driving and riding were perfect during lessons and learner driving/riding. But knowing there was someone testing me put me right off. It was something about having to prove myself that tripped me. I hate proving myself to other people.

The night before my second driving test I took half a valium (I was not on any other medication such as anti-anxiety meds). It allowed me to sleep calmly and be more chilled when doing the test the next morning. I passed easily because I was still cruisin' and didn't care. I've been driving now for over 30 years without accident. My sister, on the other hand, passed first go and has had many accidents...

After failing my riding test for the third time I thought "ah, it's the universe telling me not to ride!" So I took my bike down to a shop to get a few things done before selling it. The shop owner convinced me to give it another go. "People who fail the test once, twice, three times are better riders in the long run when they do pass" he said, "please give it another go." So I did. I took the test thinking, if I fail, then it's meant to be. In other words, pass or fail it was all the same. And waddya know - I rode really well and passed. In the 25 years since then I have ridden tens of thousands of miles on three continents without mishap.

So my advice to you is don't care. Don't care if you fail, don't care if you pass. Just don't worry about it. Releasing yourself from the anxiety of 'performance' is the key.
posted by Kerasia at 12:11 AM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'll be watching the answers to this question with interest as it's something I worry about too. But here are things that have worked for me.

1. Exercise for general anxiety.
2. With regards to planning: instead of mentally going over my list of things to do again and again, put it down on paper. It seems much less overwhelming when it's right there in front of me.
3. Give yourself a cut-off point after which you will no longer think about the thing that's stressing you out.
4. Give yourself permission to fail. Is it the end of the world? In most cases the answer is no.
posted by Ziggy500 at 4:48 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've found that having a sense of humor about it and being able to laugh at myself really takes the pressure off. In all those situations (except maybe the midterm), if you screw up, so what? Just take a step back, acknowledge that it didn't work so well that time, and start again.
posted by phunniemee at 5:08 AM on January 12, 2012

Take the test enough times (as Kerasia pointed out) and you'll get used to it and not freak the hell out so much any more.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:23 AM on January 12, 2012

I failed a driver's test once this year before passing and it was also a matter of anxiety under pressure. Preparation can only help so much; for me, I found mindfulness of the breaths I was taking to help ease the pressure. I also think that when you are somehow able to put aside expectations and consequences to what the aftermath of the task entails and to instead focus on the present, your focus somehow takes over...all the preparation you've done becomes part of a tempo and the process is a natural one.

And don't let past mishaps/mistakes bog you down mentally...remember the moment at hand!
posted by wallawallasweet at 6:55 AM on January 12, 2012

It's a long term solution, but learn to fight. I had a head start that I wouldn't recommend (fighting all the time as a kid), but I later studied Jeet Kune Do. I'm sure boxing or MMA or fencing or kickboxing or anything would do, but the bottom line in fighting or any tense situation is keeping cool and using your abilities.
posted by cmoj at 7:43 AM on January 12, 2012

One way to take the focus off your anxiety is to do or think of something that makes you laugh. I have this one thing that, when I see it, makes me laugh out loud 99% of the time. When I get super nervous and all I can think about is how my heart won't stop racing, I imagine this hilarious thing and at the very least it makes me smile and distracts me from my damn overactive sympathetic nervous system. Another option is to use progressive muscle relaxation techniques to counteract your body's stress response. This takes some practice and can be difficult to do in the middle of stressful situations. I think that laughter works better. YMMV.

I get the sense that this is a pretty pervasive problem for you and thinking about funny things probably won't get you through all anxiety-provoking situations. If your anxiety is really interfering with your ability to work/do well in school/maintain intimate relationships, you should see a therapist. CBT is really effective for most anxiety disorders and beta blockers (medication) are sometimes prescribed to counteract the physiological stress response (which perpetuates this type of anxiety). It could also be helpful to talk about why failure is so scary for you (it's scary for everyone, but I think that this kind of performance anxiety is usually linked to some irrational beliefs about self-worth).
posted by Mrs.Spiffy at 8:42 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

  1. Keep your body physically limber yet relaxed, PMR but also regular vigorous exercise.
  2. Practice three times more than you think you need to. Practice until you can think about something else entirely and still get it right by reflex. Then practice more.
  3. Realize that you're supposed to fail repeatedly during practice. That's what practice is. Watch the failures and improve on them one by one, making fewer and fewer.
  4. Use written lists of steps to make sure you miss none. Practice with and without the lists.
  5. Differentiate tasks at which it's ok to "fail but recover". A lot -- a lot -- of tasks do not have a single "it's all over now" failure moment; they have "failures that can be corrected". In these tasks, the skill is not in "never making mistakes", it's in "rapidly moving to correct mistakes and/or brush them aside as soon as you see them". Recognize when you're in such a task and focus on the corrections and adaptations as much as the initial acts.
Good luck!
posted by ead at 9:00 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Musicians and actors with stage fright sometimes get a prescription for beta blockers.
posted by phliar at 5:01 PM on January 12, 2012

I used to fence competitively, and I am a semi-professional musician. I have had to perform under pressure a great deal, and different things work at different times. Obviously, as mentioned above, preparation (or what seems like OVER-preparation) is a key ingredient. Often this is all you need, and it's definitely the most important thing to do.

You can also practice for being in a nervous, anxious state: try doing a bunch of jumping jacks (or something else that gets your heart racing) and then immediately practicing the skill you need to be able to do while nervous. Really get your blood pumping and the adrenaline flowing and then force yourself to focus as quickly as possible on the task at hand. This will not be easy at first, but the more you do it the more familiar that scared/anxious/nervous performance state will be, and you will become more acclimated to performing under that kind of physiological stress.

In other situations, and this is a skill you have to practice, try thinking about this. In most performance situations, once you get past your nerves (that shaky first part), you usually enter a state of peak performance. The idea here is to skip the shaky initial stage of your performance and go straight to the peak operation stage. There are different ways to achieve this, but what I do is essentially force myself to hyperventilate right before I go onstage. I start a few minutes before so that I can get all my systems ramped up past that shaky stage before I perform. Be careful not to start too early, or you'll have to do it all over again.

Having said that, I'm not sure this helps with things like sex or video games, and I wish I had some more generalized advice for you.
posted by sleepinglion at 10:56 PM on January 12, 2012

For me it helps to sort of have a performance "zone" that I mentally get into during the performance itself, that is completely different than the mental state immediately beforehand. So for example, if I'm publicly reading a speech I might be nervous going through the lines over and over again just before giving the speech, but once the time actually comes I get rid of the nervousness by just focusing on saying each sentence of the speech without any higher level thinking about how the speech is going or what the next part is. Practice helps with that because it makes the performance zone feeling more routine, with enough practice doing a complicated maneuver happens without even thinking about it, the same way that you might find yourself driving to work on your day off because it has become so routine that you do it without thinking. If you start to overthink things and question parts of the routine though, it ruins that. So for example if I'm solving a rubik's cube I can do a memorized 8-move sequence in a few seconds without thinking about it, but if I stop halfway through and try to think of the actual moves individually it ruins the flow. Part of that is just not letting yourself think about the details while you are repeating what you have practiced, thinking about it is for when you are practicing, once the actual performance comes you need to let go of that kind of thinking and just focus on performing.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:20 AM on January 17, 2012

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