how to break the cycle of performance anxiety

How to Break the Cycle of Performance Anxiety

It is okay to feel stressed when trying to complete a project, especially if you’re working on something very important or something you’ve never attempted. In fact, stress and occasional anxiety are normal and should be expected.

However, you might be dealing with performance anxiety if you feel intense apprehension nearly every time you want to do a specific task, such as taking a test, speaking in front of a large audience, engaging in sexual intercourse, or competing in sports.

Usually, performance anxiety makes you worry about failing to accomplish a task or fear the consequences of poor performance, such as rejection or embarrassment.

If you frequently experience excessive fear because of an expectation, I urge you to keep reading this article. I’ll show you how to break the cycle of performance anxiety using five effective methods.

What Is Performance Anxiety?

woman with arms folded staring out a window

In simple terms, performance anxiety is excessive fear or worry about your ability to accomplish a specific task.

Performance anxiety can be triggered by just about anything, and the effect can range from mild to severe. Usually, it is an intense apprehension that comes up in anticipation of a specific task or activity.

There are a few different types of performance anxiety in addition to generalized anxiety, including:

  • Stage fright: This is a common issue experienced by stage performers, such as dancers, musicians, and actors. It is also the intense fear of public speaking, whether in a small or large group, so you might experience stage fright when asked to deliver a speech in front of your classmates or make a presentation during a board meeting.
  • Test-taking anxiety: Usually, test-taking anxiety negatively impacts your ability to do well, so your test score might be significantly lower than your actual knowledge if you were worried about performing well while taking the test.
  • Interview anxiety: Similar to test-taking anxiety, interview anxiety is excessive worry about interviewing for a job or anything. The more fear you feel about your performance during an interview, the higher the chances of performing poorly. It can also be considered a form of social anxiety disorder.
  • Athletic performance anxiety: Athletes who experience athletic performance anxiety worry about upcoming competitions or training. This mindset can increase the chance of injury during performance.
  • Sexual performance anxiety: This can happen before or during sexual intimacy and may lead to erectile dysfunction and other sexual difficulties. The effect of sexual performance anxiety can create serious cracks in relationships and may cause sexual dissatisfaction if not tackled on time.

Symptoms of Performance Anxiety

The symptoms of performance anxiety vary between individuals and the severity of the problem. However, the common symptoms include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Chills and tremors (especially shaky hands)
  • Excessive sweating
  • A knot in the stomach
  • Nausea, headache, dizziness, and lightheadedness
  • Making too many mistakes during the performance 
  • Increased thoughts of poor performance or failure
  • Abandoning the task

Having discussed the various types and symptoms of performance anxiety, let’s focus on how to break the cycle of performance anxiety.

Tips to Break the Cycle of Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety can be an extremely challenging experience for some people, especially when it interferes with their self-esteem.

The good news is that you can significantly improve the symptoms of performance anxiety and reduce frequent reoccurrence, no matter how severe the case is.

Here are five effective tips for breaking the cycle of performance anxiety.

1. Deliberately Shift Your Focus to Positivity

silhouette of a man with open arms in sunset background

Whatever you firmly believe is likely to be your reality. In the words of Henry Ford, “whether you think you can, or you can’t, you’re right.

Performance anxiety becomes a loop if you keep feeding it with the power of your belief.

Here’s another way to say it:

Performance anxiety is fueled by self-limiting beliefs, which, in turn, are powered by negative thought and self-talk.

Read the last few lines again, and it’s easy to see that you’re always in control of how you feel, whether you realize it or not. Your thoughts, self-talk, and beliefs all emanate from you, so you can control your focus and how your body responds to what you’re thinking.

If you focus on negative self-talk, your attention to how poorly you performed in the past will trigger the fear of past failure and humiliation. When this happens, your anxiety will likely worsen, and you’ll mess up your current performance.

Here’s something to always remind yourself: it is okay to make mistakes!

Whenever you feel anxiety creeping in on you, shift your attention to why you are likely to perform better. For example, tell yourself, “I’ve learned from previous mistakes, and I have prepared well for this presentation,” or whatever the task at hand is.

It can also be helpful if you write some positive affirmations and carry them with you always, so you can read them whenever you feel anxious.

Remember, performance anxiety can easily become a pattern if you have a worry mindset. Failing once or a few times at one thing doesn’t automatically mean you’ll always perform poorly at that task.

In other words, most of the battle against performance anxiety is fought in the mind. Change your mindset to a more positive one, and you’re halfway there!

2. Use the Power of Excitement

excited man

Excitement or eagerness is different from being anxious or nervous. The former means looking forward to something, while the latter means dreading it.

Although you might experience performance anxiety with tasks you really enjoy and look forward to, you can use your excitement to overcome the anxious feeling.

One way to harness the power of enthusiasm and excitement is to remind yourself why you enjoy a particular task or activity. Ask yourself why you look forward to performing and what aspects of the performance excite you most. You might even choose to write them down and read them to yourself when you feel anxious about your performance.

Once you have your answer, nurture the feeling of excitement for as long as possible to help overcome performance anxiety, even if it is only temporary.

3. Practice Relaxation Techniques

woman lying on the grass with eyes closed

A continued anxiety disorder may create tension in your body because it continuously puts you on edge. A good way to overcome the problem is to use relaxation techniques.

Two of my go-to relaxation methods are progressive muscle relaxation and pursed-lip breathing.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

With the progressive muscle relaxation technique, you can quickly ground yourself by shifting your focus from anxious thoughts to the sensations in your body.

The technique involves tensing different muscle groups in your body for about 5 seconds and then relaxing the muscles for about 10 or more seconds as you exhale.

Choose whichever muscle-tightening sequence that works for you. For example, you can start from your feet muscles and move up to your head or vice-versa, as long as you move sequentially through the muscle groups.

Here’s how to practice progressive muscle relaxation:

  1. Find a quiet spot where you can sit or lie down undisturbed and undistracted for about 15 to 20 minutes.
  2. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position.
  3. Slowly inhale and exhale five times and relax your entire body.
  4. Slowly tighten and relax the different muscle groups in your body for about 5 seconds. Remember not to hold your breath, as that can cause more tension.
  5. Progressively move through the muscle groups from your feet to your head or head to feet.

While you can use this technique whenever you feel anxiety rising, consider performing progressive muscle relaxation, even when you are not stressed or anxious. This will help you learn the technique faster. And if possible, wear loose clothing when doing the process.

If you’re wondering how to break the circle of performance anxiety, this relaxation technique can help you if you practice it daily.

Pursed-Lip Breathing

Sometimes, something as simple as deliberate breathing can help you overcome performance anxiety. There are several deep breathing exercises for anxiety, one of which is the pursed-lip breathing technique.

The good thing about pursed-lip breathing is that you can do it anywhere and anytime, and you don’t need any special props.

The next time you feel anxious about doing something, calm your nerves using these steps:

  1. Gently close your eyes and relax your neck and shoulders.
  2. With your mouth closed, inhale slowly through your nostrils for about two seconds.
  3. Pucker or purse your lips as if you’re giving a kiss or blowing out a flame.
  4. Slowly exhale through your pursed lips.
  5. Repeat the process until you feel relief.

4. Face Your Fears

warrior confronts a tiger

We naturally want to avoid things that make us uncomfortable and distressed. Yet, this is not a good coping mechanism when it comes to breaking the cycle of performance anxiety.

If anything, consistently avoiding triggering situations can make matters worse!

A better approach is to face your fears; however, you want to start small. For example, it will be rather foolhardy to deliver an important speech or presentation in front of a large crowd if you have extreme stage fright or social anxiety.

Consider practicing in front of a small group of familiar, supportive faces like family and friends to help manage your anxiety disorder and provide the exposure you need. You might start with just one person to get your acts together before taking on a larger group.

5. Eat Foods That Help Stabilize Blood Sugar

cup of smoothie with bowl filled with fresh fruits and seeds

So far, I’ve discussed how to break the cycle of performance anxiety using tips that might seem “unrealistic” to some people.

It’s okay if relaxation techniques or the power of excitement feels too “out there” for you. Here’s something a bit more hands-on: limit sugar, caffeine, and any food capable of triggering anxiety-like symptoms.

Anxiety is connected to increased blood sugar levels due to the increased release of cortisol, the stress hormone. 

Interestingly, certain foods can mimic physical symptoms of anxiety, turning your nervousness into intense and persistent anxiety. This is why choosing foods that help lower or regulate blood sugar is important, as it can help reduce jittery and nervous feelings associated with anxiousness.

This lifestyle change might be a bit tricky for people who can’t do without coffee or are addicted to sugary foods and drinks.

However, it is worth the effort because cutting off or minimizing these foods won’t only help to stop a recurrence of anxiety symptoms, but it will also improve your overall physical and mental health.

Include well-balanced meals in your diet to help regulate your blood sugar, which reduces anxiety. Instead of highly processed foods and refined carbs, it is more helpful to eat whole, unprocessed foods as a major part of your diet.

Some foods that may help regulate blood sugar include:

  • Leafy vegetables (lettuce, kale, and broccoli)
  • Fruits (berries, avocados, green beans, cucumber, okra, pumpkin, and tomatoes)
  • Legumes (lentils and beans)
  • Nuts (peanuts and almonds)
  • Seeds (flaxseed and chia seeds)
  • Seafood (shellfish and fatty fish)
  • Fermented foods (kimchi, kefir, and sauerkraut)

When to See a Therapist

Consistently practicing the self-help methods above can stop performance anxiety, especially in mild or infrequent cases.

However, it may be necessary to seek professional help if the problem has a negative impact on vital areas of your life.

While medications can help treat severe cases of performance anxiety, talk therapy, including counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), are often used to reduce and eventually treat the problem.


Anxiety is a fairly common experience, and it happens to just about anyone, regardless of age and gender.

However, performance anxiety can take a toll on your confidence, productivity, and relationship (in the case of sexual performance anxiety) if not properly handled. Fortunately, you’ve seen how to break the cycle of performance anxiety using simple but effective methods.

Remember to practice these tips even when you’re relatively calm. By frequently grounding yourself, you increase your chances of accomplishing those tasks that trigger heightened anxiety. And your confidence level will grow higher the more you perform better, thereby breaking the cycle of performance anxiety.

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