Performance anxiety

Top tips to strengthen self-regulation skills when anxiety strikes.

For those moments when the little’ un or great big teen in your life gets nervous and their inner voice is screaming NO YOU CAN’T! This could be freezing at the nursery door at ‘drop-off’; buckling at the school gates; a melt-down the night before the Year 4 show; freezing in front of practice papers at GCSE or A Level; or a rising cycle of panic attacks triggered randomly or specifically in the run-up to exams or performances of any kind.
There’s a lot of it about right now. I’ve been doing a lot of listening and thinking around anxiety lately. It’s been a theme with a number of my teen coachees – as well as in the workshops I’ve been doing with parents.

Anxiety and performance anxiety have many different masks – it can seem lazy (avoidant, it’s too terrible to approach) or provocative / annoying / attention-seeking (a row, a laugh, any distraction being preferable to facing the reality of the challenge at hand). And it has a ripple effect of anxiety on the family as a whole.

Last week I ran a workshop for parents of Year 11 students on how to support their teens on the home front through the urgencies of revision and study-leave, and preventing their home-life being hijacked by either their teen working non-stop, or by rows over them not working enough. Either way the anxiety of the child can be seen manifesting itself – either in over-work, in-balance and one dimensionality. Or in the stress contagion of the apparent inertia of avoidance transferring the stress to the parents. Anxiety is like a hot potato. It’s hard to hold so we like to toss it around! And how we as parents act on the receiving end of our child’s anxiety can – through intentional action and repetition – be very powerful in enabling mastery of fears. 
At times, however, as we are, alas, only human, we can be short with our anxious little / big buddies and snap out something shaming, belittling, or minimising. Inadvertently increasing the anxiety by indicating we simply don’t have the bandwidth for it. “Look you’ve got to go to school and Mummy’s got to go to work now – so in we go!” The amazing thing about parenting is that we get to have THOUSANDS of conversations over the years. Many of them on the same themes worries, niggles etc. So there’s loads of scope for rupture and repair.
So if you’ve tried reasoning with anxiety, deal-making, rewards, sanctions, threats and ultimatums, this post is for you. 
When I ask parents (and teachers) about mental hygiene routines – what you encourage in family life to still and calm the mind (in the same way that you’d build in physical activity to nurture the body). I am often met by workshop tumbleweed.
When I coach people – teens, adults, who suffer from anxieties of one kind or other that cause disproportionate suffering, this is an issue that is always worth a deeper dive. I am often told ‘I’ve tried taking deep breaths- and it doesn’t do anything to help.’ And no – it won’t. And your teen will gladly tell you they ‘Did mindfulness at school and it was sh*t.’ Because when kids – big or small are in a bind – they just want YOU to fix it or SOMEONE to take the problem away and anything that starts to empower them to work through it is going to feel threatening – so you know you’re talking to your child’s amygdala, not your whole-brain child (Dan Siegel).
And to an extent they are right about breathing being a panacea for stress. Trying to breathe your way out of a panic attack is the equivalent of trying to perform in a weight-lifting competition without having done any of the gradual strength-building, weight-lifting practice back in the gym. It just doesn’t work if you don’t put in the practice.

How can we help them increasingly hold their own hands through pressured times and lead them back to a calmer, can-do energy? 

IN order to help re-engage the whole brain, we need to teach them to calm themselves through panic and overwhelm, so that they can re-connect with their creative, whole and resourceful selves. The caveat behind ALL the suggestions that follow – is that they ONLY work under pressure when you’ve done a good long patch of daily practice at home or out and about WHEN CALM. This helps train the puppy-dog mind with a routine that calms the body AND stills the mind increasingly on-command. It’s all about wiring the brain, strengthening the circuitry of the parasympathetic system in order to calm down enough to come to a point of 

  1. Awareness – ‘I am feeling X at the moment’ – to then move into 
  2. Metacognition: – ‘I need to feel Y to do this well’- and 
  3. Action ‘To feel Y, I need to do Z’
    Through practice with them, they can borrow our Pre-Frontal Cortexes to be walked through the process enough times for them to manage the self-talk for themselves. What we need to do is give them the structure, and a menu of strategies to down-regulate so that they can recognise where they are at earlier and choose the best action for THEM to access calm by themselves.

I saw a moment of self-regulation triumph in action with my daughter, When she was aged 8, and very afraid of heights. She spent weeks before her best friend’s ‘Go Ape’ party worrying, not sleeping, ruminating through her fear of heights. She decided to go, had the most adrenaline-filled hour of her life. I watched helplessly from the ground – but had the proudest moment when I saw her stop in front of a set of terrifying swings – to walk from one unstable plank to another. I saw the freeze. I saw the other kids start to back up behind her and the pressure rise. And THEN I saw her do her breathing practice, mouthing her self-talk and move on, finish the route, celebrate – and immediately go round again. And this is what we want them to be able to do WHEN WE ARE NOT THERE, in the exam hall, when they’ve turned the page and been poleaxed by an unexpected question, or the topic they’ve dreaded coming up…
This is a VAST improvement on rumination and analysis – circling the panic drain ’I can’t do this, I feel terrible because I feel terrible, there’s no way I can do this!’. You can easily see how slowing down and creating a gap between trigger and response paves the way to choice, agency and action. Choice decreases anxiety. Action binds it. Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. Viktor E. Frankl
The menu – creating space in the face of overwhelm…
Using the body and mind to slow the mind and open the window of tolerance. 

  1. Breathing exercises – breathe in for 3 and out for increasingly longer 3, 4, 5, 6 beats for a minute – in the morning after waking, and at night time before going to bed. Gradually bringing more awareness into the rhythm of the breath, that there’s a peak at the end of the in-breath and a pause at the end of the out-breath before breathing in again. There are various resources that can help add variety of approach to this – but the emphasis is on extending the out breath, thus slowing the heart and dispersing the stress hormone, cortisol. The breath is the simplest route to the nervous system – it is an automatic response that we can harness with practice by capitalising on the link between the breath and the heartbeat to get that fight-flight response to stand down. Here’s a link to a more scholarly -but short – article from Harvard Medical School:
  2. Breathing and visualisation – in addition to the breath, add on another rich, sensory layer – it makes the practice even more effective. Apple’s Breathe app uses an expanding and contracting lotus flower, which is lovely – but you don’t need to invest in an Apple Watch to build a beautiful image around the breath – that’s what the imagination (app!!) is for!! Picture a vacuum, hoovering up all the worries, the details, and mind clutter as you breathe in, sucking up the fears about school, about forgetting stuff, about the test, about forgetting your lines, and then when you breathe out, imagine all those worries dispersing as you let go of them. There are lots of other options – beach breathing, the waves build up as you breathe in, and spread out on the shore as you breathe out, there’s breathing beautiful bubbles that can pop and disperse as you breathe out, there’s the buzzing bee breath. The following links are resources used by some of the schools I work with who have used a programme of self-regulation techniques to reduce melt-downs and increase inclusion for children who need social and emotional support which, let’s face it is all of us from time to time.
  3. Grounding in the body – when the mind is racing, we need to take back control – and another way to slow the mind is to bring our attention to our physicality. Anxiety loves to live in the future, to race ahead, scanning the horizon for threat and anticipating the worst to keep us safe, and guess what? It can be a self-fulfilling prophecy! To come back to the present, stop, stand with our legs hip width apart and straight, to feel our feet in in our shoes. Let the feet spread out and make our kids and teens strong anchors on the battle-field of life, or the mine-field of the social scene. Go into the sensory aspect of being you – the fabrics you are wearing, the feel of the back-pack on your back, the warmth of the sweater. Use that to create that gap between the trigger and your response. If your hear is racing as you wait to go on-stage or into the exam hall, root yourself to the ground while you wait and do a body scan. From the toes, the ball of the foot, rock back on the heel, feel into the ankle, the shin, the knee, this amazing structure of your body that’s holding you up and keeping you strong…etc etc.
  4. Havening – a light, comforting touch to the outside of the body. We do this instinctively – when we touch our upper chest and collarbone when we’ve heard something shocking, when we touch our brow or temples, or when we give our arms a little stroke. The problem for more self conscious children – and those 9+ – is that this is quite overt. It can be adapted for a more private self soothe, by using the finger to gently, stroke figures of 8 in the palm of the hand – or on the top of the hand.
  5. Tapping – using physical triggers for relaxation, tapping on the acupressure meridian points and using  evolving self talk / mantras to acknowledge / validate the feeling state and to challenge the thinking around the feelings:
  6. Journalling – Prof Martin Seligman AKA the father of Positive Psychology, waxes lyrical over this technique to wire in appreciative habits of mind and gratitude. The 3 Good Things journal, before bed-time, encourages savouring of the positives. 3 good things – no matter how small – and to journal WHY they were good. These shouldn’t be trophy or success-based. It is also all about noticing the small moments of connection and taking them into the heart…See the Professor explain in this brief clip: Have a look at his book:
    I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition, and that it’s given you food for thought about how you can suggest alternatives for action to help the little ones AND big ones you love, down-regulate both when calm, and when the pressure is on. 
    If any of you feel you want to do something with this, but are unsure how to begin, contact me and book in a call. If your teen is preparing for some big bad exams right now and you think they need some help with managing anxiety – or motivation, get in touch. Time is ticking down, but it’s not too late to take action. If you, or someone you know is stressing about your kid’s stress, and you know you need to step back but you can’t, get in touch and we can see if some coaching might shift the cycle into something more empowering and helpful for both!
    I have just said goodbye to two amazing coachees who have made the changes they envisioned and are ready to step out with far less fear, secure strategies, and a sense of purpose and energy, so I have a couple of coaching spots come free. 
    Similarly, feel free to recommend my newsletter to friends and family. It really helps spread the word, and helps me with my mission to bring back power and purpose to the people in an increasingly anxious and overloaded world. Signup is via my website home page
    With love and gratitude, Emma.

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