Performance anxiety, whether its for a job interview, a meeting, an exam, a sports performance, promoting our business, affects most of us in some way or another 

Dr Hannah Bryan

By Dr Hannah Bryan -
Chartered Clinical Psychologist
Europe Approved EMDR Consultant and Facilitator

Historically we used to see performance anxiety as something that affects actors, musicians, sports personalities. People who had to perform in front of others, in a professional capacity. We used to call it Stage Fright. Now I like to think wider than this as in my clinical experience this issue affects almost everybody I have ever met or worked with. We all at times can feel nervous or on edge about things we have to do, or things that we really want to perform well at.

In order to understand performance anxiety we need to think about what performance and anxiety actually means.

What does the word performance mean? A dictionary definition I found is “The action or process of performing a task or function” Well this could be anything. An interview, a presentation, a work meeting, a client session, publishing social media content, pitching for your business, presenting within a Facebook live, doing a TV interview, running a marathon. These are all performances that are often things that we find ourselves doing on a day to day basis. But do we experience anxiety around them? Read on if you want to find out more …

Performance is ‘the action or process of performing a task or function’

So what is anxiety?

Anxiety is a perfectly normal physical response to a situation that we find threatening and overwhelming. Our brains are truly wonderful things. It’s the bodies way of keeping us safe and alive. We have a tiny little almond shaped part that’s called the amygdala. This is the brain’s smoke alarm. It constantly scans the environment (and often also the thoughts in our head). When triggered it will sound loudly to let you know that you are unsafe. You need to do something to protect yourself.

It will then prepare the body to survive this threat. This is known as the fight/flight response. The brain activates the sympathetic nervous system in order to survive. So this system prepares the body by flooding it with adrenaline. The body is preparing to fight or run from the perceived attack. 

⭐️ So our heart rate increases. Our blood pressure and breathing speeds up this helps us to run as fast as we can.

⭐️Our muscles become tense. This can help us fight off the perpetrator.

⭐️Fat and sugar are released to provide energy to the muscles. This can also cause trembling.

⭐️Digestion shuts down as it’s not needed in this situation. We might notice an upset stomach or butterflies in our tummy.

⭐️Sweating occurs. This not only keeps the body cool and makes us harder to grab if we’re attacked.

This is pretty amazing that the body can do all of this to protect us in seconds. And yes it’s great when we are at risk of attack from a sabre toothed tiger as our ancestors may have been but not so helpful when the thing that has made us anxious is the fear of a meeting!!


So let’s put the 2 together and think about what performance anxiety is.

It starts as a physical reaction to a perceived threat. There is likely to be something that we might want to achieve in life that we feel nervous or anxious about. Now some adrenheline and some emotion around the event is important as it can help us think fast and actually motivate us. There is a fine line between what’s helpful and then what becomes too much that it holds you back!

We may find a performance anxiety provoking because we have some anticipatory anxiety of what could go wrong. We fear the worst.

✨I will forget the words in my speech, how to play my instrument, the words of my song

✨I will have lots of negative comments on my social media post if I post this.

✨People will see that I am not good enough and I will be sacked, lose my business. Lose my reputation etc etc.

✨The audience will hate me.

✨I will lose the race, I will get a really slow time, I will be rubbish

It’s so important because these moments, these performances are something that we generally really want to do well at.

So if you have ever had a moment when you really want to do well at something but it just feels too much. Your mouth going really dry in an interview and you’re struggling to speak, feeling shaky when you are planning that pitch to some investors, going red in the face and struggling to get your breath when you are doing a presentation to colleagues, finding half way through your run that your body is struggling to cope and you think you can not go on. Then you might  be experiencing performance anxiety. 

But there is help out there and you don’t have to continue suffering. Coaching with EMDR might help. Click here to find out more.