3 Secrets to Beat Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety makes us second-guess everything from how to shoot a free throw to what to say next in an interview. Here are three ways to bring it under pressure!

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #245


  • How the language you use can help to eleviate performance anxiety
  • The case for pre-performance rituals
  • A movement hack that can give your affirmations more impact  

Listener Adeel from England wrote in to ask how he can perform better under pressure. Adeel has spoken English as a second language for many years and has excellent communication skills. But he notes that in high-pressure situations, he sometimes gets anxious and the words don’t come, plus his accent becomes more pronounced. What can he do to remedy this?

Buy Now

As an Amazon Associate and a Bookshop.org Affiliate, QDT earns from qualifying purchases.

Performance Anxiety Is Universal

Anyone who’s ever been in a similar situation—and that’s all of us—can empathize. Even with tasks we've done a million times—like speaking a second language, walking up stairs, or navigating the grocery store—under pressure or observation, we get psyched out. We lose the most basic skills. A friend told me that once, during a lunch interview, she overthought how to swallow and had to sit for a few moments with a mouth full of iced tea before she could collect herself and figure it out.

It’s universal: pressure, whether it’s pushing down on me or pressing down on you, makes us second-guess how to hold the putter, work the laser pointer, or pronounce niche (is it “neesh?” Or “nitch?”), even though we usually do it without a thought.

It’s universal: pressure, whether it’s pushing down on me or pressing down on you, makes us second-guess ourselves.

So what can you do in the moment? Whether you’re trying to ace an audition, nail a presentation, shoot a free throw, or spell “koinonia” for the win at the National Spelling Bee, how can you pull out all the stops without losing your cool?

This week, let’s get it done with these three tips.

Tip #1: Get excited

The researchers behind a hilarious but solid study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology made participants sing the opening lines of Journey’s "Don’t Stop Believin'." 

But right before the small town girl took that midnight train, each participant was assigned to say a statement at random, and—importantly—to try their best to believe it. They were assigned: “I am anxious,” “I am excited,” “I am calm,” “I am angry,” “I am sad,” or no statement at all.

Next, voice recognition software scored each performance on volume, pitch, and note duration. 

Which group performed worst? You guessed it: the group that said “I am anxious.” That makes sense.

But who performed the best? You might think it was the group that stated “I am calm,” which is what we often try to tell ourselves before a big moment. But instead, it was the group that said “I am excited” before belting about that city boy born and raised in south Detroit. 

Why is this? Before a big moment, we get physiologically activated. All bodily systems are go, and it's hard to slow a racing heart and jangling nerves, even when we tell ourselves to calm down.

So rather than trying to change our physiology, we can change our mindset by saying “I am excited.” This changes our view of the task from a threat to an opportunity. Threats result in anxiety, but opportunities make us enthusiastic. Seeing the task as something we get to do rather than something we have to do subsequently improves our performance. After all, everybody wants a thrill.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.