Performance Anxiety

Laurie Shawger, MS, LPC-IT, NCC, Certified Grief Counselor

This article is authored by CPA therapist Laurie Shawger who specializes in helping clients with performance anxiety. To make an appointment with Laurie or to ask any questions, please contact her at or 262-251-1112 x 738.

Performance under pressure isn’t a rarefied experience reserved only for the upper echelons of competitive sports. Ordinary life is full of pressure to perform well, such as in job interviews, presentations, job performance, and academic tests.

In your life, when are you in a high-pressure performance situation?

What is performance anxiety?

Performance anxiety or stage fright are terms used to describe the experience of feeling on edge in a performance. Any situation, usually witnessed by others, which a person regards as high stakes is a performance. Physical changes, including increased heart rate and faster breathing, excessive muscle tension, dry mouth, or upset stomach, signal that the stress system is activated. After the performance, the body responsively ramps down to its ‘not under pressure’ level of functioning.

If you feel pleasantly excited and motivated as you anticipate your college interview or work performance review, then you are likely within your optimal zone for performance. If, at the thought of your next exam or work presentation, you are becoming panicky, hyperventilating, or getting a stomachache, your body is signaling a high level of stress. Those physical signs are often compounded by self-doubt, self-critical thoughts and extreme self-consciousness.


A successful approach to working with performance anxiety is one that addresses the
individual’s situation and needs. Even so, some useful general concepts are:

  1. The performance event is a learning experience. Focus on the process while performing. Hold off on evaluation until afterwards.
  2. The stress response is a normal part of performing. Practice in pressured situations to get used to how your body reacts to performance stress.
  3. In practice and in performance, cultivate the skill of observation, with curiosity and non-judgment, as an alternative to feeding anxiety and to getting stuck in negative thinking patterns.
  4. Weave flexibility practice into performance preparation, to be confident in handling the unexpected during performance.

Many athletic coaches routinely use sport-specific focusing warmups, visualizations, and cue words, to prepare athletes for competition. Students involved with dance, music, and drama are trained in how to attend to what they are doing while connecting genuinely with an audience. The strategies built into workouts and practices in sports and performing arts are useful life skills that transfer into other areas.

Preparation tips:

  • Be on top of the material or the skills you need for the performance. You will not perform better than your level of preparation.
  • Use the same strategies in practice that you intend to call upon in performance: practice matters.
  • Be creative in designing ways to simulate performing under pressure. Practicing performance is an essential element of preparation.


There is not a one-size-fits-all recommendation for dealing with performance anxiety.

Personal and situational factors contribute to each person’s unique experience of performing under pressure. Do not neglect the fundamental needs of sleep, nutrition, exercise, a balance of work and fun, and maintaining supportive social connections. Taking care of yourself and paying attention to your well-being contributes to general health and your capacity to handle stressors. Experiment with what specific strategies help you to be your best. The research on performance anxiety presents many different options. Be curious and discover what is effective for you.

Consider professional counseling if:

  • You are struggling with how to deal with performing under pressure.
  • You get down on yourself with negative self-talk or self-sabotaging when you are in a performance situation.
  • Your fear of performing is interfering with school, work, sports or other important activities.

Additional Resources:

Sports or competition:

Public speaking:

Animation of two theories about performance under pressure:

This article is authored by CPA therapist Laurie Shawger who specializes in helping clients with performance anxiety. To make an appointment with Laurie or to ask any questions, please contact her at or 262-251-1112 x 738.