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Performance anxiety not just a bedroom thing

Dr Louise Mahler

Performance anxiety is generally associated with sexual ability and when speaking or performing on stage. But it can be a common trouble in business too, writes Dr Louise Mahler, with some advice on how to deal with it.

Performance anxiety can happen in an everyday situation in business where you are faced with cash-flow, delivery or stock issues or simply feel overwhelmed.
You need to realise that this is normal.

Not only are we dealing with an immediate traumatic situation, but our responses are magnified by a lifetime of the drip, drip, drip of stress that have a long-term effect.

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For instance, maybe you were the shortest in your class, sick when you were young or bullied at school. A difficult situation about cash flow, for instance, cannot only be traumatic in itself but can also raise to the surface our trauma of past experience.

Without realising it, you can find yourself actually dealing with two issues: the one at hand and the emotional response from a past experience. Rivers of emotion can run deep.

So, when the heart starts racing, you feel the sweat, you can’t finish a sentence without running out of air and your eyes either stare or dart around wildly: it feels as though you are taken over by aliens, when in fact, it is layers of emotional response impacting to try to save your life.

These responses are very useful for running from bears, but not useful for everyday business.

Understand the process to be able to control it

The thing to realise is, you are not taken over by aliens. The responses are all from the unconscious mind and you can raise these to awareness and control them. You just need to know how.

Many people think the starting point is with your thinking, but from my 20 years of practical experience (and a sufferer of performance anxiety myself) and 16 years of research and study, I know that clients do not have the two years required for psychotherapy.

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Luckily, it turns out that the effects are physical and if you intervene at the body, the mind will be reined in quickly.

I have worked with clients facing a range of uncomfortable situations, from going for a job they wanted to facing national television under scrutiny, when they had previously been unable to speak under pressure.

Overcoming an angry approach

A case in point is John. John was a CEO who had taken over an organisation, who had a tendency to bring a perception of intense anger when engaging with stakeholders. He never expected that his every move would be translated by the stakeholder as some indicator of trustworthiness, or lack thereof.

When approached by customers, his habit was to stand on one leg, tilt his head to one side and look angry.

None of this is professional and, while no one will ever point out what you — like John — are doing, this manner was gaining negative responses and setting up conflict.

By pointing out John’s habits and changing them using professional strategies, the responses he received from various stakeholders changed dramatically for the better, and so too did the business get back on track.

7 tips to overcome performance anxiety and put you back in control

I recommend working through the following points to put you back in control during times when you feel nervous or stressed:

  1. Have a neutral physical position you can go to in times of stress. This can be balanced feet, parallel and one-foot-length distance apart. Body upright with no head thrust forward. Nod your head slowly. Have your arms long by your side or clasped asymmetrically in front.
  2. Have a short mantra that is easily repeated, to block any negative thoughts and put the mind on the right path. An example may be, “This is a learning experience. This is a learning experience...”
  3. Press your tongue to the top of your palate. This will release your jaw and stop you from looking aggressive as well as releasing tension from your own body.
  4. Find a way to go for a walk. Being static is a major problem for stress. In ancient cultures, they would never sit face-to-face to resolve conflict. Sitting face-to-face is a Western concept. To make discussions easier, suggest a walk or a drive if possible or place chairs at an angle to one another and have a tea or coffee in front of you, to focus your attention and allow for movement.
  5. Smile. Smiling has a lot of benefits, for both you and those you work with. Firstly, smile and the world smiles with you, so you will improve their mood. Secondly, you can consciously smile and improve your own mood. And thirdly, when you lift the muscles under the cheeks, it is proven that the throat will form a clearer passage to make sound more easily.
  6. Get air OUT of your body. Do not breathe in. Breathe out. Cough. Speak more loudly. Get the air out in large doses.
  7. Blink. Under stress, the eyes can set or go berserk in different directions. Keep the eyes focused and blink approximately every 15 seconds. It is a movement that is softening for both you and the people with whom you are speaking.

Dr Louise Mahler is a keynote speaker and leadership coach, and holds a masters in organisational psychology as well as a PhD in business. She also received RMIT’s Vice-Chancellor’s Research Award for Innovation.

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Performance anxiety not just a bedroom thing
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