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Getting nervous during a work presentation? It might be performance anxiety

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The pit in your stomach, the knot in your throat, racing thoughts, and a desire to run away: these are all telltale signs that our body and mind may be preparing for an important event. The anticipation of something significant, or being right there in the midst of it, can make us feel like we are at risk. That is why we react in the way we do—with fear and anxiety.


Feeling anxious at work is common. Anxiety may be heightened when you are asked to present at work either in-person or virtually, facilitate a meeting, or even when eating your lunch in front of colleagues. If fear comes up when you’re preparing to do something or perform a task in front of people, we call this “performance anxiety.”


Feeling anxious when asked to take center stage is one of those pesky parts of being human. The famous author Mark Twain said, “There are only two types of speakers in the world - 1) The Nervous and 2) The Liars.” What Mr. Twain was getting at is that it is expected that anxiety arises when people are in front of a crowd, whether we know the audience or not. In fact, when we see master performers doing their craft, perhaps at a concert or sporting event, or delivering a seamless public speech, those individuals are likely feeling the nerves too. What sets these people apart is practice, the ability to soothe and relax themselves, and some helpful coping tools to settle their butterflies.


Sometimes the nerves you feel when you have to perform in public are just that – a bit of nervousness, standard performance anxiety that many people feel. Sometimes, though, when that performance anxiety is frequent, intense, or debilitating, it might be a Social Anxiety Disorder. Those with Social Anxiety Disorder have a disproportionate fear of being judged and embarrassed and their fear is intense. It is as if they exist under a microscope. As a result, they may avoid social and performance situations. If they are corralled into an unwanted social scene, they may endure the situation with high levels of distress. This distress may interfere with their day-to-day lives (e.g., going to the grocery store), their relationships, and their job. It’s important to remember that Social Anxiety Disorder can only be diagnosed by a licensed professional.


The good news is that there are ways to manage performance jitters. Here’s how:


  1. Awareness. Recognize and build an understanding of your anxiety. Get specific about what makes you anxious at work and what does not.
  2. Exposure. When we gradually expose ourselves to what is scary (either imagined or real life), both our body and mind have the opportunity to learn that we do not need to run from distressing feelings. The feelings are very ‘icky’ in the moment, yet they are not necessarily harmful or as bad as we anticipate. The outcome may not be as consequential as you imagined.
  3. Learn and practice self-soothing. There are various evidence-based methods to calm the nervous system, such as progressive muscle relaxation and diaphragmatic breathing.
  4. Check your thinking. Get clear about what you are predicting will happen and your ability to cope. Very often anxiety is related to overestimating the likelihood of negative outcomes, underestimating our ability to cope, or focusing on negative information while ignoring positive or even neutral information. Practicing bringing your thinking into balance can help bring anxiety into balance, too.
  5. Cultivate self-compassion. So often we are not kind to ourselves when we are anxious. Imagine what you would say to a loved one or friend if they were in your situation. See if you can extend that level of compassion to yourself. Our brain is responsive to the thoughts, images, and words that we tell ourselves, and so it can be useful to be our own gentle cheerleader, warm coach, and calm voice.

There are other forms of anxiety we can help with at MindBeacon but we often find performance and social anxiety are some of the most prevalent. If you find yourself struggling with anxiety, you can access our programs by visiting our Virtual Mental Health Therapy Clinic. If you are part of our Workplace Mental Health Program, please visit your company page for access to services covered by your workplace. 

"Start by accepting the increased uncertainty..."

Stronger Minds content is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to establish a standard of care with a reader, you should always seek the advice of your mental health professional, physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. If you think you may have a medical or mental health emergency, call your doctor, go to the nearest hospital emergency department, or call emergency services immediately. You should never disregard or delay seeking medical advice relating to treatment or standard of care because of information contained herein. Medical information changes constantly. Therefore the information herein should not be considered current, complete or exhaustive, nor should you rely on such information to recommend a course of treatment for you or any other individual. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.