Ever been paralysed with fright right before your big moment? It’s never too late to accept your performance anxiety and conquer it
You were excited about singing in front of the whole school all week, but while waiting in the wings on that fateful day, you couldn’t move. Your heart was pounding so loudly you could feel it in your mouth. You forgot the words of the song you’d practised 25 times every day. When the teacher called out your name, you dissolved in tears and declined to perform.
It might just be an embarrassing childhood memory, but performance anxiety could continue into adulthood. Technically, it’s the anxiety, fear, or persistent phobia before a performance — be it on camera, on the field or before a big presentation.
Sometimes, anxiety may start gripping your heart in mere anticipation of the event. The common manifestations are pounding heart, trembling of limbs, sweaty hands, diarrhoea and erectile dysfunction. If this sounds familiar, take solace in the fact that it affects even the greatest of our species, and is not an actual performance indicator.
Take for instance, footballer Marko Pantelic. Olympiacos, a successful Greek football club, signed him on in August 2010. He had scored 20 goals in the previous season for the AFC Ajax club from Amsterdam and showed a lot of promise. But instead of shooting up, Pantelic’s performance went down to only 10 goals in the following season of 2010-11.
“When I started my career as a striker, there was no major stress that actually affected my performance. But some performance issues took a toll on me. I felt impulsive, lethargic and nauseated. At times, I felt extremely sad, depressed with a nagging negative vibe around me,” he told us.
The trigger for Pantelic’s performance anxiety disorder was the million-dollar deal he signed with Olympiacos. And that at 31, he was fast approaching a footballer’s average retirement age (35 years). According to psychiatrist, Dr Harish Shetty, the gestation period for an anxiety disorder can be as short as four to 12 weeks. “The anticipation of failure,” explains Shetty, “leads to a change in the thinking pattern. It then ropes in an irrational fear of scrutiny and judgement by others and pushes the person into isolation.
Rather than focusing on the task at hand, you worry about thoughts such as, ‘Will they like me?’ Past memories of failure only heighten this anxiety.”
Hitting a low
Clinical psychologist Varkha Chulani says the Yerkes-Dodson Law is relevant to Pantelic’s case which defines a curve-like relationship between anxiety and performance.
“Performance increases with mental anxiety, but only up to a point where anxiety doesn’t overwhelm the former,” she says. As anxiety levels gradually increase, you become vigilant about the errors and careful about improvement. This level of anxiety is still good as one is capable of delivering an optimal performance. The balance topples over when anxiety turns into distress and performance dips as sharply as it rose. This was the point at which Pantelic was still scoring goals but at half his original rate. The better he began to do, the more pressure he put on himself to perform each time. Where first he went to the field to ‘play’, he now went to ‘score’.
“Performance pressure can eventually lead to a lot of physical and psychological imbalance. This could definitely lead to performance standards going down even in training sessions,” Pantelic said.
Behaviour therapy is a proven method of decreasing anticipatory anxiety. The goal is to overcome avoidance and face the trigger step by step. For instance, for the fear of public speaking, patients are asked to get familiar with their voice inside a room. Next, they are asked to participate in office meetings. Once confident, the patient is asked to make presentations at a business conference. The idea is to repeat the exposure until the discomfort wanes.
The patient must wait in the hostile situation until the anxiety subsides.
Back to winning ways
Pantelic, who felt constantly tired and disinterested to even attend training sessions, sought help from Dr Shreepad Khedekar of Imperial Clinics, Dadar. The performance anxiety was causing an imbalance of neurotransmitters in his brain, says Khedekar.
“Neurotransmitters are essential chemical messengers used by neurons in the brain to facilitate communication with other organs. They regulate all functions including emotional states,” he says. Stress interferes with the production of these neurotransmitters, causing anxiety.
“Exposure to long periods of chronic stress was depleting Pantelic’s serotonin, adrenalin and GABA levels, thereby shooting up his anxiety,” says Khedekar. Six months of treatment later, Pantelic was back in shape. In the 2011-12 season, Pantelic scored 16 goals, propelling Olympiacos to become the season’s Super League champions.
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