It’s very natural to feel ill at ease before a significant event such as a job interview or driving test. For many people, this feeling of being on edge has no major repercussions and can in fact be beneficial, but for others, it can lead to performance anxiety or in a worst-case scenario a panic attack. So what’s the difference?
The difference is down to the different thought processes in the individual. We know it’s not the events in our life that cause anxiety, if it was everyone who sat a driving test, for example, would fail due to their anxiety. So it must be the thoughts around the event that create anxiety.
Many children up and down the country sit their SAT’s, GCSE’s or A-Level’s every summer. Most will no doubt feel slightly on edge, but it won’t negatively affect their performance. Others will find it much more difficult, as their thoughts spiral out of control and it negatively affects their ability to focus in the exam.
Anxiety causes a physiological response; our body temperature, breathing and heart rates increase and we become sweaty. Blood flow is shunted away from our stomach to more important areas such as our arms and legs.
The important thing to note is that this physiological response is exactly the same as if we’re excited. However, our thoughts tend to be positive as opposed to negative when we’re excited. When we think negatively, we activate our fight/flight response which then starts this physiological response.
So to control your performance anxiety research shows that you need to reframe the message you tell your brain. Essentially you need to trick your brain into thinking it’s excited and not nervous.
When you notice the butterflies in your stomach, the sweaty palms and pounding heart you need to tell yourself ‘I’m so excited’. You then need to give yourself a reason for being excited, i.e ‘I’m so excited to sit this GCSE exam as when I pass I’m going to go to college’. By reframing your thoughts, you stop anxiety from taking hold and in turn stop the production of stress hormones, which negatively affect your ability to focus. Repeat this as many times as necessary until you feel in control.
To calm yourself even further you can use rectangular breathing. This simply means that you breathe out for longer than you breathe in. The common practice is to breathe in through your nose for a count of 7 and breathe out through your mouth for a count of 11. Repeat this for as long as you need to feel calm. By doing so you help yourself to spend more time in your ‘rest and digest’ nervous system as opposed to your ‘fight/flight’ one.
Perhaps you might be interested in reading other articles from my mini-blog series;