How to Break the Cycle of Performance Anxiety at Work

Medically reviewed by: Shane Trujillo, EdM
Tuesday, May 23

Performance anxiety can be an all-too familiar experience for many of us, whether it’s in the form of imposter syndrome, perfectionism, or procrastination. The pressure to meet expectations, whether they are our own or those of others, can become overwhelming and lead to feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. These feelings are normal, and they don’t have to consume your life. With the right tools and resources, you can learn how to manage and overcome workplace performance anxiety.

What is performance anxiety, and how can it affect me?

Performance anxiety is a type of social phobia characterized by an intense, persistent fear of being watched, humiliated, judged and/or rejected specifically related to situations like giving a speech, playing a sports game, or acting in a play. At work, this can also look like fear of having to present at a meeting, talking to coworkers or people in power, or shunning social events. The fear is so strong that it can prevent an individual from going to work, school, or making friends. Research suggests that social anxiety is common, affecting about 7% of Americans.

How to recognize signs of performance anxiety in yourself

People with social anxiety and performance anxiety may experience symptoms like:

  • Blushing, sweating, or trembling
  • Pounding or racing heart
  • Stomachaches
  • Rigid body posture or speaking with an overly soft voice
  • Difficulty making eye contact or being around people they don’t know
  • Feelings of self-consciousness, imposter syndrome, or fear that people will judge them negatively

Strategies to overcome workplace performance anxiety

  1. Stop comparing. Focus on measuring your own achievements instead of holding them up against others’. True imposters don’t feel like imposters — in fact, imposter syndrome tends to appear most frequently in highly successful, high-achieving people.
  1. Stay in the present to avoid catastrophizing. Try your best to pinpoint the situations causing you the most anxiety. Focus on things you can do right now to succeed. Practice staying in the here and now instead of stressing yourself out about the worst case scenario. Visualization techniques can help you maintain a positive attitude and ability to handle difficult situations.
  1. Reframe your anxiety as excitement. Several experiments conducted at Harvard University with college students and members of the local community showed that simple statements about excitement could improve performance during activities that triggered anxiety. Both anxiety and excitement are emotional states characterized by high arousal, so it may be easier to view anxiety as excitement rather than trying to calm down to combat performance anxiety.
  1. Practice good time management strategies. Learning how to prioritize your tasks and delegate responsibilities can help reduce workplace stress and anxiety. This can include setting clear goals, breaking down large projects into smaller, more manageable tasks, and taking breaks to rest and recharge.
  1. Improve your communication skills. Good communication can help reduce workplace stress and improve workplace relationships. Learning how to effectively express yourself and communicate your needs can help you feel more confident in your interactions with others.
  1. Get professional help to manage your anxiety. Breathing techniques and positive self-talk are a great way to get started, but sometimes we need more help. Consider seeking the help of a therapist who specializes in treating performance and social anxiety.

Performance anxiety can have serious negative effects on our ability to socialize, and pursue our passions. We tend to be our own worst critics, but remember, everyone will make mistakes. With practice, you can learn how to embrace the challenge rather than fear it, as well as how to turn negativity into positive thoughts like “I’ve got this!” 

SonderMind has therapists available who specialize in performance and social anxiety — connect with one in as little as 48 hours.

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