By Mary Gonring, MEd, LPC, Licensed Professional Counselor, Christian Family Solutions
It is the night before an important test.
Or the moment before stepping on stage for a theater performance.
Or the last few minutes in the locker room before the big game.
In a perfect world, these moments can fill any teen with feelings of excitement and confidence. These moments can also elicit feelings of dread and anxiety.
Anxiety occurs often when we believe that our skill set does not match the challenge at hand. This lack of confidence presents in the things we say to ourselves:
- “I’m really worried I’ll mess up.”
- “I don’t think I’m good enough.”
Sometimes, the lack of confidence shows up in the way we physically feel – shakiness, tight chest, shortness of breath, fidgeting. Either way, the pressure of performance can feel debilitating.
So, how do we combat this pressure? How do we believe that we are good enough for the big moment or the big test? How do we increase our confidence and decrease the feeling of dread?
Here are five steps I discuss with clients who frequently experience performance anxiety:
1. Work on your reality-based self-talk.
Most often, we can combat our anxious thoughts with realistic thoughts. For example:
- If worried before a test, and your thought is, “I think I’m going to fail,” you can instead say, “I studied for two weeks for this test, and I passed all my self-tests. I’m going to do OK.”
- If you feel worried about a playoff game, and say to yourself, “I’m going to miss every shot,” you can instead say, “I work on my shot every day in practice and I’m a great shooter.”
In both of these cases, we are changing the first opinion statement to an evidence-based statement. A statement about what is real, not felt.
2. Challenge the thoughts that make you feel anxious:
One way to change our thinking habits is to practicechanging our thinking habits. As you study for the test or prep for the performance, write down any anxious thought that pops in your head, or any thought that convinces you that you might fail. Then, see if you can change these thoughts after you write them down. Simply ask yourself, “Why will this thought not come true?” Give yourself evidence that will help you challenge the anxious thought.
3. Do a body scan:
For some people, pressure and anxiety present themselves more in their bodies. One way to recognize this is to complete a body scan when you feel worried or anxious. Is your chest tight? Are you breathing more quickly than normal? Is your face red? Figure out which parts of your body feel different, or not relaxed if anxiety pops up, and jot those down. Writing it down helps you identify that it is happening and address the cause.
4. Develop a purposeful relaxation routine:
Once you have completed your body scan, you can then implement a relaxation routine. Note that this routine should be implemented not just when you feel anxious, but every day before a test, game or performance. For example, if your body scan revealed that your chest tightens and your heart races when you’re anxious, then your routine could be five minutes of deep breathing every morning, and also while prepping for the event, and finally every night. If you feel fidgety in your hands when anxious, your routine should include a stress ball, or something to squeeze and release to relax your hands.
5. Turn to God:
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter: 5-7). “Casting” those worries means to throw them somewhere else – in this case, on God, who is strong and can handle anything we throw his way. To remember this, work prayer into your preparation routine. If you are studying for a test, say a prayer each time you take a break. If you want God to be with you on the court or field, say a prayer before the game asking for his presence. You can even draw out the sign of the cross onto your basketball before shooting a free throw as a ritual reminder that he is right there with you. Some athletes draw a cross onto their sneaker and touch it when feeling worried. Whether you are an athlete, a performer, or a student, you can benefit from adding any reminder of God’s presence in your work.
Remember, these are preventative steps that will reduce your anxiety overall, not just in pressure cooker situations. Incorporate these steps into your entire day, not just when you are feeling anxious. If they are familiar routines, then they will be easier to implement when the pressure is on. Your confidence will grow over time, as you face each situation with a little less anxiety.
Mary Gonring is a Licensed Professional Counselor specializing in working with youth and adolescents who struggle with anxiety, communication, self-advocacy, and taking risks. She also specializes in performance enhancement work with high school and college athletes.