Performance anxiety: knowing how to overcome it

Let’s talk about performance anxiety. A test, a job interview, a sports competition or a public presentation: while for some people these may represent simple everyday actions, for others they become a source of great stress and anxiety, what is known as performance anxiety

Although the term ‘performance anxiety’ often tends to identify that anxiety related to sexual performance, in reality the stimuli that can trigger it are numerous and occur in different areas, not exclusively sexual.

Performance anxiety can emerge in various contexts from which it takes its name

We will therefore speak of relational, work, sports, school and sexual performance anxiety, all of which have in common the fear of failing in a given task, of not reaching the set goal and are characterised by the presence of failure-oriented thoughts.

Why does anxiety manifest itself?

We could call it ‘fear of fear’. In fact, unlike fear, which is closely connected with the instinct to flee from a danger, anxiety represents the symptom of the repression of this instinct, which leads to the alteration of the relationship with reality.

Paolo Quattrini, director of the Florence Gestalt Institute, describes it well when he states that: “it is the sign of an inner escape, not translated on the physical plane, a hidden escape, which must not be noticed, an escape that is not allowed”.

In a way, one could say that the person instead of responding to fear with a force that opposes it, for example with anger, which in turn would develop determination towards the desired goal, reacts by developing more fear.

In the mind of the sufferer of performance anxiety, self-sabotage, failure-oriented thinking sets in and what is referred to in psychology as ‘the self-fulfilling prophecy’ occurs.

All the actions performed produce exactly what was feared, triggering a sort of vicious circle reinforced by the accumulation of defeats that, over time, undermine self-esteem and self-confidence.

Symptoms of performance anxiety

The most common symptoms of anxiety are stress, insomnia and irritability that tend to intensify as the test to be faced approaches.

These symptoms, prolonged over time, can also lead to panic attacks.

The consequences of performance anxiety can therefore negatively affect the normal course of daily life.

The case of sexual performance anxiety is different, where sufferers can also develop desire disorders, anorgasmia or, in male subjects, premature ejaculation and erectile dysfunction.

How to combat performance anxiety

Psychological therapy to overcome the anxiety that can generate performance of any kind involves work aimed at developing a greater awareness of the mechanisms that the person triggers whenever he or she is faced with anxiogenic stimuli in order to open up the possibility of new behavioural modes.

Together with the psychotherapist, the person is helped to develop that awareness of the so-called ‘fear of fear’ that leads him or her to transform anxiety into fear of contact with something specific, i.e. with the real threat from which escape is attempted and from which it is instead possible to defend oneself.

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