How does performance anxiety take hold of my brain?Intimacy / Mar 22nd 2018  at 04:50PM   /   0

Dear KC, How does performance anxiety take such powerful hold of me, and at the worst times? It's gotten so bad I find myself making excuses to end dates early, to avoid risking a bout of ED. Why is my body working against me?

Sometimes it helps to understand the mechanics of a situation, in order to regain control and put things into perspective. Having a mental picture of performance anxiety and how it comes into play can help you learn to manage it or head it off at the pass. It affects almost everyone to some degree, in one or another area.

Performance anxiety is insidious yet also possible to affect, a primary goal for most of my clients. For the purposes of a blog post, below is a basic explanation of how it's triggered and what happens next.

First, a couple definitions:

Amygdala: your brain’s “alarm system.” it signals the stress response. It’s constantly scanning environment for dangerous faces, voices, movements, statements, etc.

Anterior cingulate / orbital frontal cortex: your internal “editor/fixer.” It engages to correct your mistakes. Once stimulated, it continues to predict and plan for more social errors.

Next, allow me to paint a picture, beginning with a standard performance anxiety trigger:  going on a date.

Let’s say you've met an attractive woman online, and you invite her out for drinks. You meet up at a bar, and it turns out you like her right away. Ten minutes in, you're nervous enough to make a slight faux pas, such as a joke that falls flat or a spilled drink.

First, the amygdala processes available sensory data, such as the sight of your date frowning and the heavy thud of an awkward silence. It sets off alarm bells in your brain like, “DANGER! Danger! I’m at risk of making a fool of myself!” 

Next, the editor/fixer kicks in (in your frontal cortex). It asks, “Do I seem unsophisticated? Stupid? Boring? Clumsy? Should I change the topic? Do/say something distracting?”

Finally, a loop is formed between your alarm system and editing system, each triggering the other nonstop. This ties up all your mental resources so that you can no longer access your authentic self.

This is a classic case of performance anxiety.

The knee-jerk response is to fight, fly, or freeze, but the key to battling performance anxiety is to instead establish a sense of safety & security. This is done through mindfulness, meaning to become focused on the details of your moment-to-moment experience. Being mindful is to be fully present.

By consciously directing your attention, you activate the corresponding neurons in your brain. This in turn creates new neural pathways. For example, when feeling anxious during a moment of silence on a date, instead of immediately trying to fill the silence—which will only make your anxiety more apparent—try paying attention to your present-moment sensory experience. Focus on your breath or areas of increased muscle tension in the body. 

This is how you cultivate mindfulness.

Studies show that "conscious mindfulness" can alter activity in your brain at a neural level, leading to a new experience in which you no longer feel anxiety under the same conditions. It won't happen overnight, but the sooner you start practicing, the sooner you'll be able to head off, or overcome, reoccurring feelings of performance anxiety. 

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