Thursday, October 12, 2017

A Different Way to Look at Performance Anxiety

(This blog was originally posted on September 15, 2016)

Photo by Rick Hustead

Performance anxiety, or the fear of performing some task or behavior in front of other people, is a common phenomenon. Indeed, a majority of my hypnotherapy practice centers on helping clients overcome performance anxiety to some extent. Whether the person wants to increase confidence to speak or play an instrument in public, or overcome a “nervous stomach” before taking the field at a big game or horse show, performance anxiety is the culprit. Many people who come in to quit a tobacco habit or lose weight are initially surprised to learn that smoking/chewing tobacco or over-eating are replacement behaviors their subconscious mind uses to repress or stuff down this anxiety

What if the source of your performance anxiety has less to do with the specific activity you are about to do and is more about being evaluated for that performance? In her book titled The Power of the Herd, A Nonpredatory Approach to Social Intelligence, Leadership, and Innovation1, Linda Kohanov theorizes that the source of this stress has more to do with the evaluation than the task. The Eponaquest LLC founder calls this phenomenon “evaluation apprehension,” and describes various physiological symptoms of anxiety that we associate with performance anxiety including increased blood pressure and pulse/heart-rate and rapid speech pattern. Above all else is that overwhelming fear that everyone in the room is hyper-critical of and negatively rating everything we do. She even explains that the most deleterious effect of evaluation apprehension is the way it inhibits our desire to learn or try something new for fear of receiving this negative response from others. 

When I read Kohanov’s take on performance anxiety, her concept of evaluation apprehension being the cause of this phenomenon really resonated with me. For example, it seems incongruous to hear that our favorite actor or dancer experiences severe “stage fright” before each performance despite having received the highest accolades for his or her work. What do they have to be afraid of when they have won every award there is for what they do? And yet, time and again they insist how much easier and preferable it is to do the work than to see the movie or a video of the performance, hear or read reviews about it later.

Her recognition of the “fear of the unknown” as a source of a person’s anxiety to try something new also dovetails with the Theory of Mind2 that John Kappas, Ph.D., referenced in so much of his hypnotherapy work. According to the Hypnosis Motivation Institute founder, the subconscious part of the mind is uncomfortable about and resistant to doing new or different things even when the conscious mind (logic, reason, will-power/free-will and reasoning) says that it’s okay to do so. This resistance comes from the “knowns” (familiar stimuli) and that subconscious mental script we all carry around to protect us from real and perceived threats. If you have a subconscious mental script that keeps reinforcing the message that everyone really is judging and evaluating you—and you believe that this judgment is negative—of course you will avoid that situation at all costs. Since the subconscious mind works on expectation and imagination, over time, we learn to expect others to respond to and interact with us in a particular way based on that previous experience. 

With that in mind, I would suggest looking at the phenomenon of performance anxiety in the context of “evaluation apprehension.” In fact, I really already do that in my hypnotherapy practice as I teach clients various breathing techniques to increase their relaxation and imagery exercises so they can focus on all the things that can and will go right during the task. I also encourage clients to use memories of positive experiences/outcomes in similar situations to increase their self-confidence and self-esteem. Ultimately, when we are confident and relaxed doing the behavior, it is easier and even enjoyable to do the task and not even think about, let alone worry, what other people may think about our performance.

1.        Kohanov, Linda. The Power of the Herd: A Nonpredatory Approach to Social Intelligence, Leadership, and Innovation. New World Library: Novato, California. 2013. pp. 188-189
2.        Kappas, Ph.D., John G. Professional Hypnotism Manual: A Practical Approach for Modern Times (4th Edition). Panorama Publishing Company: Tarzana, CA. 2001. pp. 10-13

Sara R. Fogan, C.Ht. is a certified hypnotherapist based in Southern California. She graduated with honors from the Hypnosis Motivation Institute in 2005. For more information about Calminsense Hypnotherapy® and to set up an appointment, please visit
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