Performing under pressure? Try 5 proven stress-free strategies.

a woman standing on a stage in front of a crowd of people

If you’ve ever spoken to an audience and you’re in a venue like this, then you know that split second when say to yourself, “Geez, I hope it goes well.”

Anxiety is a completely normal emotion, but sometimes we all have completely abnormal responses to it.

Sweaty palms, somersaulting stomach. You get the idea.

Even though I feel alive when I speak in front of an audience—in fact, I LOVE it—that doesn’t mean I don’t feel nervous before getting on stage.

It’s impossible to live life free of pressure, but thanks to experts in the field, there are some great strategies for overcoming our nerves.

We live in a high-pressure world because technology connects us to nagging demands 24/7, where every day we feel we are on the line.

But short-term strategies can help “immunize you to the pressure of the moment,” according to Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters Most coauthors Hank Weisinger and J.P. Pawliw-Fry (pronounced Paw-loo-Fry).

Why do you need this kind of immunization?

Aside from the fact that it’s needle-free (ha!), pressure adversely impacts our cognitive success, such as problem-solving, trust building, and critical thinking.

It also downgrades our motor skills—think athletes, chess players, and concert pianists. I have a colleague whose recurring stress dream is that she’s booked for Carnegie Hall but doesn’t know how to play the piano. Talk about anxiety-inducing!

Wesinger and Pawliw-Fry suggest an impressive twenty-two strategies in their book to alleviate pressure. Here are the five I appreciate most:

  1. Befriend the moment. “Think of pressure moments as a challenge, opportunity, or fun,” say the coauthors. Seeing situations as threatening drains your energy, reduces self-confidence, and impairs your judgment. Feeling challenged is an “inherent performance steroid.” In this case, I’m pro-steroid.
  2. Downsize the importance. If most people overexaggerate the importance of a pressure moment, then it is necessary to minimize the moment to maintain a clear head. You know I’m a list maker, so I like the authors’ advice: Make a list of the most important things in your life and refer to it in pressure situations for perspective.
  3. Use your positive GPS. Be positive before and during high-pressure moments. This strategy leads to reduced fear and anxiety. Imagine positive images like reaching a summit or tending a garden. Use a variety of encouraging statements, such as “When (not if) we get this client…” or “Let’s grab some water after we finish this half-mile swim.”
  4. Be high-control. Focus on what you can When you focus on factors you cannot control, you increase feelings of pressure. Here we go with lists again. Yes! The authors suggest making a list of things you can control: thoughts, physical responses, and actions. Now make a list of things you cannot control: other candidates applying for the position or audience members staring blankly after you make a joke. OK, too personal, but you get the idea. Now bring your focus back to what you can control, and visualize your peaceful control of these factors.
  5. Be obsessive and compulsive. Yes, I know! I love this one. The authors recommend this behavior. Create and practice a pre-event routine to help you create a habit of peace. The routine should involve “mental activities, imagery, relaxation, positive self-talk, etc.” You should perform this same ritual lasting three to five minutes right before the pressure situation. Be obsessive about repeating it so your body naturally responds to the calming effects of your habit.

“You can’t just show up to a high-pressure situation and expect to perform well. You need to be tenacious—to put the work in. People who find it difficult to perform often discount the need for preparation and hard work. It’s easier to believe in the myth of the clutch player, the leader-hero, or the prodigy,” say Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry.

In other words, if performing under pressure is important to you, put in the time. Even if it’s something you love (like speaking to a crowd!), that’s not reason enough to fall back on positive intentions.

Instead, apply one or more of these proven strategies, and give your palms and stomach a break. Most importantly, don’t waste precious energy on the negative; make room in your mind to channel the positive so you can enjoy increasing confidence and memorable performances.

Dr. Cindy

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