Challenge this fear!

He who fears being conquered is sure of defeat.
– Napoléon Bonaparte

Healthy stress stimulates us to get work done, and among other things, to increase concentration. When we experience slight stress, it increases the release of noradrenaline, which increases a person’s attention – and it can come in quite handy when you have to study.
But stress can also become unhealthy. And once tension within the context of learning and achievement becomes too much, we talk about negative stress or performance anxiety. This is the type of anxiety that arises when you need to perform, but actually the fear then causes you to achieve worse results than if you were experiencing healthy stress. This may often feel as if you “switch off” or get a “black-out”.

On the other hand, performance anxiety can also help you to get very good results (positive performance anxiety), because you keep thinking that you do not know your work well enough and therefore you prepare excessively. Both negative and positive performance anxiety cause for discomfort because they demand plenty of (emotional) time and energy.
Pupils or students with performance anxiety often tend to have a low self-esteem, and they often set very high standards for themselves – in such a way that they believe they are not allowed to make any mistakes.

There are four aspects of performance anxiety:

  • situation (exam, test, oral presentation)
  • thought (“I’m the only one who does not understand this,” or “I will get a “blackout”)
  • feeling (anxiety, uncertainty, helplessness)
  • behaviour (a student may overwork themselves, for example, they would spend hours studying, OR a person can actually become passive by postponing or avoiding)

What you think and feel, can physically manifest in sweat, rapid breathing, palpitations, dizziness, sweaty palms and headaches. And when you’re stuck in this pattern, it is difficult to determine exactly what happened, what you fear, and how can you turn the wheel to the time that you felt you are still OK?

The fortune-telling mind: the source and strength thereof

Anxiety is a wonderful phenomenon: you have some (negative) feelings about something that still has to take place. But why do you worry about it, no one knows exactly what will happen in the future?

People with performance anxiety, or any other form of anxiety, often think they can predict the future. Or, to formulate it more clearly: they predict a certain future which, in most instances to a situation or a scenario that they fear (so often happens). If we keep this in mind, we understand why people with performance anxiety prepare themselves for the worst (e.g. “See, I cannot do it”), and they will then award positive results to chance, or something they had no control over (“I was just lucky this time” or “even the worst performer in the class passed the exam”).

These future predictions are often based on negative events from the past which led to appropriate conclusions or beliefs (“if I do not meet certain expectations, they will no longer like me” or “as long as I continue to fail, people ask me how I am doing, and this makes me feel good “). Some people carry these beliefs with them for a very long time, usually rooting from their childhood.

The following are typical negative thought patterns of a person with performance anxiety:

  • Cause and effect, for example: If I do not pass the first time, I will never become a successful professional. Here you can see two important topics which are being linked together, even though they do not have a real connection between them.
  • Mind-reading, for example: If I do not pass, everyone will think I am stupid.
  • Generalization, for example: Mathematics exams are impossible to pass.

These faulty ways of thinking often have an (unconscious) origin, and fortunately we can offer them a counterargument (“always?”, “says who?”, “why are you so sure?”, “is it possible that there can be an exception in this case?”).

Questions you can ask and other tips

  • What are you afraid of exactly, and what stage of the study process?
  • What exactly is happening to you (physically, thoughts, feelings)?
  • Try to understand where the anxiety comes from, by asking yourself questions (in which situations do I feel this way? When do I feel this way? What exactly am I afraid of?), or take a sheet of paper and complete the following sentences:
    – [Performance] means…
    – [The certificate/degree/diploma] means…
    – [To meet expectations] are…
    – [By setting demands for myself] provides the following for me…
  • Determine whether your anxiety is linked to a particular form of examination questions (e.g. multiple choice, essay questions, oral examination, etc.).
  • Analyse (possibly with the help of a professional) your level of self-esteem and work on a positive self-image by looking at your successes.
  • Do relaxation exercises.
  • Identify your negative behaviour patterns.
  • Formulate positive sentences that inspire you. Write them down and stick them on your mirror, or put it in your wallet.
  • Do breathing exercises.
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