Performing Under Pressure
For Psychology Month, Dr. Katy Kamkar, Clinical Psychologist at the Work, Stress and Health Program/Psychological Trauma Program at CAMH, blogs about performance anxiety.
Higher, faster, stronger – the Olympic motto is something to aspire to but performing under pressure can also lead to stress and anxiety.
While some anxiety is a normal emotion and we experience anxiety almost on a daily basis, it can also cause tremendous suffering and disability when it becomes frequent, severe and intense. Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health illnesses and can cause mild to severe disruption in people’s lives from social functioning to academic performance. They also co-exist with other mental health issues like depression and substance use disorders.
Some people thrive on competition but others may find the pressure difficult to handle. Anxiety is normal and helps motivate us or push us to take action. However, for those suffering from an anxiety disorder, it can lead to avoidance of an activity or be so high and severe that it can interfere with cognitive function and performance.
Even for those not competing at the Olympics with the whole world watching, it can feel just as intimidating. We may feel stress when facing an important event, upcoming deadline or presentation. It is important to keep in mind that anxiety is not only normal but also essential for survival. It’s the fight or flight response – an inbuilt alarm system that protects us when we perceive a threat or danger. We either fight or flee from danger to protect ourselves.
Just as athletes get pumped up for a big game, a rush of adrenaline can be a friend or foe when you are preparing for an important exam. It can motivate you to study harder or contribute to your anxiety, making problems seem insurmountable. So how do you find the sweet spot and make it work for you? Keep your eye on the ball, the puck or focus on the finish line which is what you need to perform under pressure.
We sometimes hear about people “choking” or being unable to reach their goals, especially in sport. It’s helpful to engage in relaxation and remind ourselves that anxiety is natural, and while we do feel stress about the situation, we need to stay positive and focus on our main goal. When the brain perceives threat, the fight-or-flight response kicks in with adrenaline and other hormones which are released. This is very much needed because it helps us gather energy to overcome the challenge.
It’s great to stand on top of the podium with a medal around your neck but for many who fall short of their goals, it can be a challenge to cope with disappointment. It’s important to set realistic goals and expectations and to be flexible as new challenges occur. When encountering new problems, we need to revise our goals and expectations, and not to measure ourselves based on whether we have achieved our goal. We need to recognize there are certain things we don’t have control over and if we try our absolute best, we cannot allow it to reduce our sense of self-worth or become demoralized.
A cycle of negative thoughts and expectations of failure can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our self-talk becomes directly associated with our emotions so it’s important to stay positive but balanced. We need to acknowledge the anxiety we are feeling, remind ourselves of the goal so we can focus on that, think about the positives and use past events and lessons learned when we were in the same situation to remind ourselves of our successes.
So whether you’re going for gold or preparing for a job interview, managing stress and the anxiety that comes with performing under pressure means you need to stay positive and set realistic goals. Regardless of the result, that automatically makes you a winner.