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How to Break the Cycle of Performance Anxiety

Everyone has experienced anxiety. Often, it comes on the verge of important events: job interviews, art shows, performance evaluations, etc. Here is how to break the cycle of anxiety to present your best self.

By Bara Sapir

October 6, 2022

To my utter surprise and delight, a monarch butterfly kissed my cheek. It had landed on me soon after hatching from its cocoon, unfurling and drying out its wings. In an elongated moment of interspecies connection, everything was alright with the world.

What started as a few caterpillars morphing into butterflies has ended as a perpetual bivouac in my yard ever since. The lesson of the butterfly was not something that I was seeking, but here it was anyway. Their presence has been a profound reminder of how we can thrive–even in adversity–to soar and become our best selves.

“Performance” is both a private and public affair. We take the time and energy to prepare and show up for a task, then deliver. Sometimes, performance occurs in real time as coveted interviews at our dream school. Sometimes, it’s how we earn scores on high-stakes admissions tests or are judged through applications and resumes. Performance can also be a culmination of actions over time like a GPA, job performance evaluations, or a solo art show. These performances, like so many others, demonstrate competency with a given task.

However, when we have performance anxiety and feel nervous or overwhelmed, have negative thoughts, or are afraid of failure, it can impact our output and have a catastrophic effect on our results and success. To this, we say: performances and tests don’t only measure what we know, they also measure how well we show up and execute.

Some students prepare for tests and know the material cold; but, they go into their exams unfocused, discombobulated, and with racing thoughts and queasiness, and, these students often underperform. The same is true for many who are preparing for interviews, athletic matches, or roles in a play. Therefore, integrating tools to manage performance anxiety is important to one’s process and outcome, especially for the applicant seeking entry into college or business school.

Whether your “test” is an actual admissions test, a tennis match, or a presentation to the CEO, who you are and the choices you make in the moment determine whether you can access your knowledge and critical thinking acumen. With test taking, anxiety results in about a 12% decrease in performance, but epic failures of much greater proportions are not uncommon. I hear about them all the time in introductory consults.

So, how do you capture your best self when it counts the most? Why is it that when faced with an opportunity to level up or impress, we often feel more anxiety than excitement and become paralyzed in overwhelming emotion? Let’s revisit the butterflies.

In their lives, butterflies experience four seamless transformations: caterpillars hatch from eggs, become pupae in cocoons, emerge into butterflies, and then die. I’ve witnessed close to 100 of these transformations, and each time it is done with ease, grace, and trust. Okay–it’s true that when becoming cocoons, they hang upside down and do a bit of a jig as they zip into their new forms, but there have been zero panic attacks! They move through each stage without question or pushback. They flow into their change and by doing so, demonstrate to us how courage and trust can help us transform into our ideal selves.

If the butterflies can do it, we can too.

Yes, change can be uncomfortable beyond mere “butterflies” in our stomach, but, when we commit to our own metamorphosis and face our fears head-on, we can embody the caterpillar preparing to take flight.

I promise this is not a new-age, woo-woo incantation for transformation. Rather, it is an invitation to adopt down-to-earth reframes and a growth mindset that will prompt thriving in challenges and perceiving failure as an opportunity for learning, rather than a fixed and negative reflection of our abilities. By desiring change and disrupting current patterns, we can derive new ways to gracefully ride the wave. After all, if we remain in an incubation mode–safe from the outside world and the opportunities within reach–we hinder our own growth.

I find it helpful to keep the butterfly in mind whenever I pivot away from old habits, self-limiting thoughts, or negative belief patterns, in order to become fully centered. If you consider that the caterpillar transforms arduously into a butterfly within only three weeks, you’ll immediately gain perspective on your own process, which may be months or years in the making!

How will you diffuse the unwanted feelings that refuse to depart? For me, it’s walking in nature where I can breathe clean air, meditation with focused deep breathing, self-hypnosis, tapping/EFT, or some good raucous belly laughs from a Netflix comedy. What will you do to arrive at your most calm and present self?

Consider adopting tools that work the best for you to interrupt unwanted patterns and manage or eliminate the undesired, distracting thoughts. Course correct until your response becomes second nature. When you have reliably released the patterns that before were roadblocks to your metamorphosis and success, then it is time to soar!

The key is staying present, curious, and ushering in ‘pattern-interupts,’ instead of focusing on why you feel discomfort. Identify whether your symptoms are telling you something important. Notice how they impact you, then deploy techniques to eliminate the unwanted feelings so that you can feel more present, calm, and empowered.

As you prepare for a test, big interview, presentation, or even challenging conversation, take time to consider these questions. Exploring and expressing our trepidation and fear may be enough to quell the anxiety and transcend the discomfort.

  • Who do you want to become?
  • How will you transform from your present to your future self and what is the smallest next step to get there?
  • How can you celebrate your abilities and expressions with ease, despite the fluttering in your stomach?
  • Can you reframe your anxiety into excitement for what lies ahead, knowing it is important and realistically achievable?
  • What needs to be put in place for you to succeed effortlessly, considering time and resources?
  • Are you willing to initiate grit?
  • How will you release complicated or uncomfortable feelings?
  • Are you willing to adapt to unwanted feelings instead of giving them energy and power?
  • And, if your feelings don’t serve you, how will you acquire a more desired state instead?

Beyond useful, it can be fun to experiment with how quickly introspection, creativity, and grounding can help you achieve your desired outcome, and how this parlays into your overall mental health. Meeting goals helps you feel fully engaged and perform authentically and unhampered. All this allows you to spread your wings and fly, majestically like the monarch, especially when it counts the most.

I'd love to empower you to overcome the performance anxieties in your life. Head to my profile and book a free intro call to get started.