“4 Simple Brain Hacks to Overcome Performance Anxiety”
by Dr John Kenworthy

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This week I’m sharing four simple brain hacks, and I really do mean simple, to overcome performance anxiety.

Your Brain on Stres and Anxiety YouTube thumbnail
Visit my Your Brain on Stress and Anxiety video on YouTube

I’ve been prompted in part, because of the responses I have been receiving about a little video I made just over a year ago now. It’s entitled Your Brain on Stress and Anxiety, and it’s garnered just shy of a hundred thousand views on YouTube alone now. Which is incredibly humbling, but also a little concerning. Humbling because it makes me somewhat proud that a little whiteboard video I drew and produced has been watched quite so many times just on YouTube. But it has also been a little disturbing.

If you read some of the publically visible comments, you’ll get an idea of the types of questions I’ve been getting over the past year from those who are suffering from stress and anxiety. Some very serious stress and anxiety as well.

So, a quick caveat if I may. I am not a medical doctor and, if you are suffering from long-term stress or anxiety, please do seek professional help.

The four simple ways I am sharing today will help anyone with any degree of stress and anxiety, but I am focused more on people in business or work who suffer stress and anxiety because they are about to perform in front of others.

That does not mean that these simple ways won’t help whenever you feel anxious, they will. So use them.

And if you have yet to watch my little video, you should do so now or later, and whilst you’re over at YouTube, subscribe to my channel as well and do please share with at least 3 people you know will benefit from learning there.

Back to today. 4 Simple brain hacks to overcome performance anxiety….

But before I begin on how we overcome performance anxiety, let us understand just what is happening when we get anxious. 

I was just seven years old when I first experienced acute stage fright.

I was due on stage to sing (in my beautiful soprano) in the finals of an inter-church competition. But the room was just so huge. There were more than a thousand people out there. And this was the finals. Something I’d been preparing for and practicing all year. But this song was difficult and required that I hit the high notes perfectly.

I froze at the side of the stage. It was as if my shoes had been glued to the floor. My thin shirt was soaking with sweat at the armpits, and I began to shake.

My singing coach (aka church choir master) came over and urged me on stage. I got out there and stood, like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I kept my head down and made myself as small as I could, so they couldn’t see me and then the pianist started the piece. The first bars repeated five times as I desperately tried to start singing. Not a chance. I turned and ran from the stage and burst into tears.

“It’s just stage fright,” the choir master said loudly to anyone who came near. “He’ll be fine in a moment.” He lied on my behalf.

46 years later and I still get a little jittery when I am about to perform. Not the singing, I gave that up a few years after that seven-year-old soprano boy curled in a heap, crying by the finals stage.

Why do I get jittery?

joe big brain curse of knowledgeProbably for the same basic reasons that anyone does. I am about to perform in front of other people who will, in some way, be judging my performance.

Whatever your performance may be:

  • A presentation to thousands or your annual performance review.
  • An interview for a cool job, or a monthly meeting in the office.
  • A sales pitch to a client or one of those difficult conversations with a low performing team member.

So how do you know that anxiety has crept up on you?

You need to be aware of your body, your thinking and your feelings.

  • Anxiety reveals itself through shallower and shorter breaths.
  • Through perspiration. Your ever so slightly clammy palms as you shake hands with your potential client.
  • You might notice yourself changing your body language. Unconsciously, you just dropped your head or turned your feet towards the door, or perhaps became tense in your arms and fists starting to form. The classic signs that adrenaline is coursing through your veins, preparing you to freeze, fly or fight.

The feelings we have of anxiety are our physical response to the neuro-chemicals coursing through our body. Principally the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. It’s important to realise that by the time you feel anxious, the chemicals that are creating those feelings are already being produced. And that’s caused by your thinking. Consciously or unconsciously, you have been thinking thoughts that cause your brain to initiate a stress response that in turn makes you feel stress and anxiety.

What you need to do, is stop thinking those thoughts.

Yeap. I know. You can’t not think something.

Remember my seven-year-old self back by the stage in tears. My dad, bless him, came over and told me to just “pull yourself together son”. He told me to “stop worrying, and just get out there.”

My choir master didn’t have much better advice. He told me to stop thinking about the audience and the judges. At least he kindly reminded me that I was actually quite good at this singing thing and really did know the piece well. And that I could hit those notes.

But how do you “not worry”?

Well, you can’t.

What you can do is 4, very simple, very easy things and stomp out that anxiety.

Number 1: How can you stomp on your performance anxiety?

1. One thing that works for everyone is breathing.

And yes, I know you’ve been doing this since day 1 of your life, and brilliantly too I might add. But just how well do you breathe?

In all likelihood, you don’t even know the answer. But you do know that when you get anxious you get a little shorter of breath. Your breathing becomes shallow and uses just the top of the lungs.

Breathe deep into your belly, through your nose and out through your mouth.

Do that right now, and you will very soon feel relaxed as your body benefits from more oxygen and a calming thought life.

2. Want to feel good about life and whatever you are about to do?

Sure we all do. So have a laugh. No, I’m not going to tell you a joke. Just laugh. Laugh out loud, right now. Wherever you are – Ok not at a funeral.

If anyone looked at you as if you are mad – that’s right, anyone laughing these miserable days with this economy and blah de blah de blah, is a little bit mad.

3. Want to feel pumped with life and energy?

Who doesn’t?

Raise your arms above your head in a victory pose. Stretch to the sky and punch it.

Powerful huh?

Now become aware of your breathing again.

Feel how your body feels now.

Smiling already?

Want some more life and energy?

Find some space and pace and pump your arms. One of the best known and most successful presenters in the world, Tony Robbins, jumps up and down, spins around, pumps his fists in the air and stretches his arms out wide for 5 minutes before going on stage.

Have a go and feel just how much power and energy you have. And how good do you feel? That’ll help generate those endocannabinoids and some endorphins too.

How do you reduce the amount of performance anxiety you have to deal with.

4. By visualizing the positive.

The first thing you need is to stop thinking about your performance anxiety. And since you cannot not think something, you need to think of something else. So whether you choose a favourite place, a favourite person or anything that makes you feel calm, relaxed and loved, then think about that. Really get in the moment. Focus all of your attention there and become aware of your thinking and feelings.

Choose to take charge of your brain’s thinking. Your brain is your servant.

Where am I going to jump up and down like Tony Robbins?

I recall doing something similar myself outside a meeting room before I went in to pitch for some work. I stood in front of this mirror on the wall and pumped and punched and smiled and did my face exercises. No-one in the corridor so I had a moment.

Then I walked in to discover that this was one of those sneaky one-way mirrors and everyone inside had watched my warm-up routine. The tension was palpable, some were in shock, others a wry smile. So I shared my routine with them in the room and everyone felt good for doing it. And yes, one of the best wins ever.

Make time and find space. Whatever you do you need to huff and puff a bit. It could be as simple as climbing the stairs instead of taking the elevator. Get that heart pumping and the blood moving and those chemicals working.

In summary, to overcome performance anxiety you can:

  1. • Breathe
  2. • Laugh
  3. • Pump yourself up
  4. • Visualize the positive

I’ve put these in the order that most clients have told me they find easier to harder. Your order may be different.

If it is so easy, why is it so difficult?

And there’s the rub. It really is easy. All you are doing is choosing to notice that anxiety is there (or better still, BEFORE it is there), breathe, laugh, pump yourself up and think something other than the anxiety inducing thoughts. And you can change your thinking. But then the anxiety pops back into focus and you worry about it for a while. Then you come to realise that you are getting anxious and maybe you remember to breathe.

The moment that you feel anxious, your brain and body are already awash with those chemicals that induce it. That is, your feelings come after the fact. The anxious response is unconscious. It is only when you train yourself to become aware of the feelings and emotions and choose to deliberately think and act differently.

Awareness is key. The very split second that you become aware of your stinking thinking, it is time to change that thinking. Do so deliberately. Help yourself by breathing deeply and focus your attention on breathing. When the anxious thoughts return, do it again, and again, and again.

And when it comes back, do it all again.

Out of the four simple ways, which one is most difficult for you?

Most of my clients admit that they “forget” to breathe. Not, of course, they forget to breathe entirely, but they forget to breathe with consciousness of their breathing.

Well, the moment that you do remember to breathe deep, then do so. You might think it’s an inappropriate time. But there’s a special bonus here. When you are breathing in – you aren’t speaking!
I know, shocker right. And that pause helps your audience process what you said. It also re-engages them to listen more closely, and, because you calm down, your voice tone drops which engages their attention further.

Just try it next time you remember and shock yourself with the great results.

Do tell me how you get on with these. I’d love to hear from you about using these techniques, or indeed anything else I’ve been sharing in these episodes.

Let me know what you like and what you think I should improve. And ask me about topics you would like me to cover.

Remember to share this with at least 3 colleagues or friends.

Be greatly blessed


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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