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Performance-Based Anxieties and Pressures:

What does it all mean and how do we find and maintain balance with them in our personal and professional lives?

 Life is fraught with expectations, whether they are placed upon us or are a byproduct of our aspirations, goals, and desires for our lives.

With these expectations can come pressure and with pressure can come any number of mental health challenges, most notably anxiety and depression. This reality is true for anyone, no matter what their day-to-day life encompasses. For some, it may be due to familial circumstances, and for others it may be employment positions and/or industries furthering a culture based in these expectations and pressures. As an artist or athlete, for example, there is a consistent pressure to perform in such a way that “proves your value.” Some may thrive off of being in a heightened, high-stakes emotional state, as it can be exciting and result in positive, reaffirming stress responses when things go well.

Yet the ups and downs and potential for chronic stress can lead one on an emotional “rollercoaster.” After countless hours or years of honing one’s craft, this rollercoaster takes its toll and can be depleting.  Being a focus of the public eye on any level, combined with the competitive nature of these industries, can also deter individuals from reporting or seeking the help and support they may need for fear of losing their current position or role. Per Julliard psychologist Noa Kageyama, “Fear of public failure is at the heart of performance anxiety, and its severity can depend on the nature of the performance.”

Kageyama also states that an audience comprised of teachers, friends, family members, or fellow performers can be more nerve-racking than performing in front of an audience of strangers, as the potential for negative evaluation from those more intimately involved in a performer’s day-to-day life may accompany a unique emotional weight and response. The real or perceived pressures from peers and close relations can also play a significant role in the intensity of performance-based anxiety and subsequent depression from fear of disappointment or failure.

As Gerard Sanacora, professor of psychiatry and director of the Yale Depression Program states, when a poor performance takes place, “the brain perceives it as a threat.” If we consider the added element of social media and the ability to publicly criticize a performer with a few swipes of one’s fingertips, along with limited ability to defend yourself as the performer, the reinforcement of these “threats” are constant. Psychologist, Michael Hollander of McLean Hospital and Harvard, emphasizes that “the impact of that shouldn’t be undersold.” In many ways, technological advancements can provide additional mediums for performers to share their craft, yet it can also add an additional layer of stress and indirectly increase the propensity of anxiety and depression for an individual. 

Now, that is not to say that all performance-based anxieties and pressures are bad! The presence of these feelings in moderation can be crucial in leading to more attentive, focused, and skilled performances and getting us where we are trying to go. Whether it be throwing a split finger fastball with pinpoint accuracy in the bottom of the 9th inning with the game on the line, standing on the stage of the Metropolitan opera singing Puccini’s “Quando me’n vo,” or presenting a quarterly business review to the biggest customer in your portfolio, the key then becomes finding balance in the processing of these feelings to have the ability to continually master your performance. Below are tips for mastering these anxieties, to then increase the overall balance in your life: 

Tips for Mastering Performance-Based Anxieties and Pressures 

  1. Have a pre-performance ritual that is unique and meaningful to you (Ex. doing a “power” stance, actively imagining – in detail – everything going well, or tapping the front and back part of home plate) to center yourself and regain a sense of control before the performance begins 
  2. Practice and rehearse relaxation to understand your body and engage in a relaxation response when needed 
  3. Remember to breathe (This sounds so easy! Yet this can be the first thing we forget to do when our emotions are heightened or more pronounced) 
  4. Engage in positive self-talk to remember your preparation 
  5. Put faith and trust in your technique and the hours or years you have spent honing your craft. Your brain and body know what to do – you just have to activate it! 
  6. After you have had time to process the completion of the performance, evaluate your performance and highlight the positives and acknowledge the areas for continued growth 
  7. Remember that you are not alone in these challenges – countless individuals in the public eye at the “highest levels” have shared their challenges with mental health, navigating pressures, anxiety, and depression. To name a few: Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, John Hamm, Kevin Love, Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga, Dwayne Johnson, and Abby Wambach. 


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