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Learning to Self-Manage Stress and Lower Performance Anxiety

Regardless of whether you're on a stage singing a song, in an office giving a presentation, public speaking, taking a test, running a football or fighting a tiger, your fight or flight system operates in the exact same way. So what can you do about it?
08/20/2015 11:17pm ET | Updated August 20, 2016
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Whether you're an athlete, a performer, a public speaker, or a lover, your fight or flight system is there to help you survive. Your everyday stresses are read by your body in the same way, regardless of whether you are faced with a lion, a tiger, a physical attack, a policeman giving you a ticket, or a fight with your spouse.

What is actually happening is that your fight or flight system causes you to pump cortisol, the stress hormone meant to save you from danger. Cortisol then bathes your brain, changing brain architecture temporarily, so that you react quickly and instinctively. When you feel attacked, either physically or emotionally, you can't stop to contemplate or use your executive function. So your body, in its wisdom, helps you act quickly to save your hide. This is the same system that your primitive ancestors used. The problem is that, today, most of your threats are emotional, and your fight or flight system can't recognize the difference. Therefore, cortisol is called upon consistently and ultimately wears down the body, like battery fluid, doing untold damage, both physically and emotionally.

Performance anxiety and the emotional stress it creates, can become a roadblock to our emotional and physical well-being, filtering down into other forms of anxiety, including sexual anxiety, relationship anxiety, social anxiety, test anxiety and so on. For example, someone who has the predisposition to shyness may develop problems interacting socially and find themselves stressed over the simplest social activities. Even a coffee date can create panic.

Whether you're a male or a female, sexual anxiety can promote dysfunction. If you're uncomfortable with your body type, the size of your genitals, or your ability to orgasm, performance anxiety may rear its ugly head. Performance anxiety impacts both sexes. As a woman, you may experience vaginal dryness, sexual pain, or discomfort. On the other hand, if you're a male, premature ejaculation, impotence, or orgasm-delay, can be rooted in performance anxiety.

Regardless of whether you're on a stage singing a song, in an office giving a presentation, public speaking, taking a test, running a football or fighting a tiger, your fight or flight system operates in the exact same way. So what can you do about it?

1. Relaxation techniques really do work. Breathing techniques, meditation, creative visualization, yoga, chi gong, are all strategies that teach you how to manage your stress level and anxiety.

2. Stop critical self-talk. Everyone has within them that negative inner voice. Yet, whether you are a male or female, you have the capacity to deliberately overcome that chatter through behavior modification techniques. When destructive language pops up, talk back to it in a positive way. Remind yourself that critical thoughts come from your childhood, your insecurities and lack of self-esteem. Role model being your own parent, and talk yourself right out of your hypercritical dialogue.

3. Practice. Rehearse that speech, practice that performance, that sexual experience.

4. Lower your anxiety through journaling. Write down your feelings without self-editing. By looking at your feelings in black and white, you will automatically lower the decibels of tension. By focusing in a positive way on your authentic feelings, you can have empathy for yourself. There are many trees in your forest. The child tree has no capacity to help you, but when you see your feelings written down, you can call upon your adult tree to step forward and act for both of you. This is a transactional analysis approach, that when practiced will work.

5. Know your history. Performance anxiety is not an equal opportunity problem. If you have had poor bonding in early childhood, trauma, including parental divorce, a bad experience while performing, or have self-esteem issues, you will be more prone to a heightened state of anxiety when stressed in front of others. The fear of being judged, criticized, or exposed to scrutiny can be extremely painful to an insecure person. By knowing your history, you can make the decision to seek professional help if needed, as well as choose the appropriate stress-reduction technique for your particular issue.

6. Practice techniques that help you de-stress sexually. These include honestly communicating to your partner both your fear and anxiety. This gives you a chance to work with your partner and opens the door to ever deeper trust, intimacy, and connection. That is the skill of older couples who are trusting and comfortable with each other. Just the simple act of communicating your fears to your partner will immediately reduce sexual stress. Once liberated, you can work together to discover ways to enhance your sexual performance. By taking control of your dysfunctional orgasm, premature ejaculation, or inability to orgasm, through the construction of new habits, behavior modification, medication when needed, increased foreplay, and relaxation strategies before, during and after sex, you'll find that stress reduction can liberate you. Using strategies, such as creative visualization, imagining a successful sexual experience, or simply practicing, which can be a lot of fun, you will find that you and your partner can find both trust and deep fulfillment in each other's arms. In reality, making a new sexual habit is no different than potty-training, where you learn to stop and start on command. By teaching your body to respond to deliberate cues, you will gain confidence and competence.

In the final analysis, you can cure performance anxiety. At the end of the day, the journey through life is your journey and it really is all about you. So take the time to learn how to relax and thus, self-manage your own stress and you will conquer your fear of performing in front of others.