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How to Overcome Performance Anxiety with NLP

overcome performance anxiety

This is a guest post by Michael Lloyd Green

Have you ever missed that important penalty kick, forgotten your lines in front of a live audience or just plain cracked under pressure when you had to perform?

Well I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you…

The bad news is we can’t jump in a time machine, go back and change the past (yet!) but the good news is that NLP can help you to Overcome Performance Anxiety so that next time you’re in this situation the chances of you stepping up and delivering your desired result increases!

NLP is an acronym for Neuro-LinguisticProgramming which is a method for recognizing and changing the way we see, hear, and feel things so that we can produce more positive results.

NLP is great for coping with issues like performance anxiety, since the majority of what is causing you to buckle under pressure is all in your head and, more often than not, the way you make a mountain out of a mole hill when you attach so many negative connotations to the thought of something you have to do which, when viewed objectively and without the emotional baggage attached, is just an ordinary action you could do quite easily if the situation felt safe and relaxed to you.

So how do we go from someone sh%tting themself when put under the microscope to freeing them up so they feel not only positive in this scenario but also with an increased confidence that things will go well?

Well, there are many great techniques in the world of Neuro Linguistic Programming that could potentially help with this but there are three in particular, which I myself have used to overcome my own insecurities when I need to perform on the football field.

These 3 techniques are:

* Matching Modalities
* The Anchor
* Zen Presence

Of course, as with any good NLP session, you would also “Future Pace” these things (don’t worry, I’ll explain what this means later on!)

Let me explain why these techniques are so damn good for this problem and then I’ll walk you through how to use each one, step-by-step, so you can DIY!

Matching Modalities is a fantastic tool to change the way you see a situation in your mind. If you really take the time to sit down, close your eyes and compare two situations in your mind, one which you love (like going out with your friends) and one which you hate (like cleaning the house), then you can notice that the way you think about the two situations is very different, and I’m not just speaking about the mental picture of the actual action itself.

If you increase your awareness you can see that, most likely, one picture is bigger or closer than the other when imagined in your mind. One is brighter and one of them is from a first person perspective while the other might be from a 3rd person view (like an out of body experience watching yourself).

If there is sound then notice the differences between the two (louder, tone of voice, internal dialogue etc) and also pay attention to the way you are feeling when you have one image in your mind as opposed to it’s counterpart.

These are all important differences that help you to feel a certain way about whatever it is you are imagining and by changing a mental scenario that is making you feel negative and matching the modalities of it with another that makes you feel positive then you can go a long way to helping you feel better in that situation not only in your mind but also when you face it in reality.

One more thing to be aware of is your physiology which is such an important and often overlooked aspect of what generates your emotional state.

Are you hunched over? Is your breathing shallow? Are your muscles tensed? Is your brow furrowed? This is what can happen without you even realizing it when you focus on something which upsets you.

Compare this with how your physiology is when it’s something that generates good feelings in you and you will see your body changes radically.

Just a subtle shift like leaning back, stretching open your arms and chest whilst looking up and breathing in slowly and deeply can go a long way towards relaxing you and instantly shifting your emotional state.

So, knowing all of this, the logical conclusion you’ve probably already made about it’s usefulness in overcoming performance anxiety is that you can Match Modalites from a situation in which you have no trouble performing actions well with a positive, relaxed frame of mind and in which nerves and pressure don’t break you.

And by doing this you can potentially create that same ideal environment in your mind for the previously detrimental situation so you can now perform to the best of your ability when it occurs without the danger of self-sabotaging.

Once this occurs you have drastically increased your chances of performing under pressure when the moment arrives but it’s great to have an ace up your sleeve as well just in case you feel yourself slipping back into negative thoughts when the time comes.

This is where having a super power comes in handy, my equivalent to this is having what’s known as an “Anchor” in the NLP world.

An anchor is basically some kind of signal you receive, through one of the modalities I mentioned earlier, which then acts as a trigger to create an instant reaction within you.

Whenever one thinks of an Anchor in this way it’s very hard not to think about Pavlov’s Dogs. If you haven’t heard of this or have no idea what I’m talking about then,in a nutshell, there was a Russian physiologist in the 1890s named Ivan Pavlov who experimented with dogs and would see how many different signals he could associate with food in the dogs minds so that the same salivating response, when the idea of food entered the canines thoughts, could eventually be created by simply ringing a bell.

We all have these types of anchors whether we are aware of them or not. An example is when you hear a song which you strongly associate with a specific period or moment of your life and the song acts like an anchor by changing your emotional state instantly as soon as you hear it. You could be laughing and having fun with your friends when suddenly you hear the song that was playing that time when your girlfriend broke up with you and it triggers you to suddenly feel a bit sad and depressed.

There are many more anchors which you may or may not be aware you have but the purpose of this article is to teach you, among other things, how to purposely create a powerfulanchor which is benificial for you when triggered.

How this can help overcome performance anxiety might be obvious so I’ll waste few words on it but basically if you are in that critical moment and you start to feel your confidence slipping then a timely anchor could give your emotional state the boost needed to rise to the challenge and squash those nerves and self-doubt before they creep in.

Last but not least, let’s get to the final, and one of my favorite, techniques, not only in overcoming performance anxiety but also to calm your mind in any situation. This technique goes back a long way and NLP can’t take credit for its creation but Neuro-Linguistic Programming has adopted this skill in order to help calm the mind and stop that incessant running commentary we all have in our head which a lot of the time tells us what’s wrong in any and every situation.

This technique has undergone many names but for the purpose of this article I will name it “Zen Presence“. What this is basically is putting your awareness and focus firmly on an external visual, audio or kinisthetic (feeling) modality you are experiencing at this moment.

An example is when you suddenly notice the humming noise your fridge makes and you put all your attention on that noise, so much so that everything else seems to disappear and fade. That running commentary in your head stops, you aren’t concerned about what you are seeing and have become oblivious to what you are feeling. You are completely in the present moment and completely encapsulated by the source of your attention and the modality being used (in this scenario – Audio).

One minute ago your mind could have been racing thinking about all the things you have to do tomorrow and your body feeling tight and stressed just thinking about it. Your body was here but your mind was well and truly absent from this moment, it was already pre-living future events.

After using this Zen Presence technique however, whether purposely or by chance, you have managed to quiet your mind and bring yourself back to the present moment which includes where you are and what you are doing right now.

This peace of mind usually lasts until you start to label the thing you are focused on and your mind starts to go off on a tangent again.

This technique is such a good way to get back on track when you are being asked to perform under pressure, especially if you’ve made a mistake and you are already reliving it and providing self-commentary on it when you are still in the process of the task you’ve been asked to perform.

An example would be if you just tripped over your own legs in front of an open goal and somehow managed not to score what seemed like an impossibly easy goal. Imagine this occured in the first 10 minutes of the match and you still have 80 minutes ahead of you. Can you imagine the quality of your decision making and confidence levels if you are then constantly dwelling on that mistake for the rest of the game!?

If left unchecked then the chances of you botching up again or at the very least conveying a lack of confidence and showing your nerves will almost inevitably occur.

There will be plenty of time for you to analyse your performance when it’s all over but the most important thing whilst you’re still in the moment of truth is to be completely present so that neither past nor future is weighing you down and you can give all your attention to the process in action. This zen inspired technique is a great one for that.

Now it’s time to actually learn how to do these techniques…here goes!

Matching Modalities

Step 1: Close your eyes and imagine the situation in which you will have to perform under pressure.

Step 2: Concentrate and take note of how the image looks…
Are you seeing it from your own eyes (1st person) perspective or are you watching yourself from afar (3rd person)?
Is it BIG or small?
Is it close or far away?
Is it in colour or black and white?
Is it a still image or a moving one like watching a film?
Is it clear or fuzzy?
Is it bright or dark?
Are there any sounds? If so, are they LOUD or quiet? What sounds can you hear?
How do you look like you are feeling in this situation?

Step 3: Think about a monkey in a tuxedo using a banana as a telephone!
(No that’s not a typo, it’s just a random image to reset your brain and get it back to a blank canvas, so to speak, for the next step…)

Step 4: Now, close your eyes and imagine a situation in which you have had to do something similiar and you were able to rise to the occasion and perform admirably (and if you can’t think of any imagine it!).

Step 5: Again I want you to focus and take note of how the image looks by asking yourself the same questions listed above (step 2) in regards to the image.
*Notice the differences between this positive, confident image and the previous one.

Step 6: Think about a dog dancing on a table wearing a top hat! (Reset button again!)

Step 7: You are now aware of the differences in modalities (visual, audio, feeling) between the two images and what you are going to do now is match the modalities from the second, confident image with the first image of the upcoming under-pressure situation so that the first looks, sounds and feels like the second.

So go ahead, close your eyes and imagine the situation in which you will have to perform under pressure again….

If the second image was close and bright for example then bring this image in close and make it bright as well.

If the quality of the image was clear and colourful in the second then in this image you’ll also mae it clear and colourful.

And so on and so forth until the characteristics of the second image match that of the first image you now have in your mind again.

Step 8: You should already notice a feeling of the situation in mind becoming “lighter“, friendlier and more appealing to you.

Step 9: Really live in the moment in your mind and enjoy it with these new changes and for an extra boost, if you aren’t already in first person perspective then put yourself in your shoes now and really feel and live the experience like you would when the time arrives.

Note: This technique can be easier when you get someone else to ask you the questions while you are imagining with your eyes closed. The other person can note down your answers on a piece of paper so that when it comes time to matching the modalities in the last part of the exercise they can tell you directly how to imagine the first scenario with the ideal characterestics (close, bright, clear etc).

Anchoring (NLP)

Step 1: Anchors can be a range of things from a mantra to an image you look at but for today’s exercise I’m going to ask you to choose a physical one, specifically a hand gesture. You can choose whichever feels best but my suggestion for the anchor is to push your thumb and index finger together in an OK sign. Easy to do and easy to remember!

Step 2: Close your eyes and think back to a moment in your life when you had extreme confidence. Maybe you were playing the game of your life on the sports field or just articulating majestically and making a great point in front of other people. Whatever brings back a memory of feeling super confident is fine. And again, if you can’t think of one then imagine it.

Step 3: As you are seeing this scenario play out in your head I want you to pay attention to the moment when your confidence reaches it’s peak and at this precise moment I want you to make the “Anchor” sign you made in Step 1.
Whilst holding that sign make sure you fully experience the sensation of confidence of that moment as much as possible.

Step 4: When the moment is over let go of the hand sign you are making and relax. Open your eyes, look around and take a breath.

Step 5: Repeat Steps 2 to 4 again four more times to really set the anchor in your mind.

Extra note: During your day to day life, if you experience a moment when you feel really confident then make the Anchor sign again at that moment to further cement the link between that hand sign and the feeling of confidence that goes with it.

Zen Presence

Step 1: During your day choose a time when you find yourself distracted, lost in your own world of thoughts and internal dialogue, and make the decision to utilize this “Zen Presence” technique at that moment.

Step 2: Put all your attention on something in the external world around you at that precise moment. It could be the sound of the wind in the trees or how the fingernail on your thumb looks. My favourite modality to use to get me centred again whilst performing is the External Feeling.

I can be running around the football field but my head is elsewhere, still reliving the mistake I made minutes earlier. To get back to the here and now I make a conscious effort to put all my attention and focus for a moment on the way my feet feel hitting the ground. If you are delivering a speech it could be the feeling of the soles of your feet in contact with the bottom of the shoes you are wearing.

Step 3: Block out all other distractions and thoughts and just pay attention to how the soles of your feet feel in contact with the ground. Really concentrate on the sensation without putting any labels on what you are feeling (hard/soft etc).

If done with sufficient focus then this will quiet that internal voice you have and bring you back to the present moment and what’s going on around you right now.

Step 4: Now direct your attention to whatever it is you are being asked to do in the moment (kick a ball, deliver the next lines of the speech etc) and use the same focus to really concentrate on the process of what you are doing moment by moment.

This is how you can get in what athletes call “the zone”, where you are so encapsulated in the action you are performing that all other distractions are blocked out and you can perform to the absolute best of your ability.

Once you’ve practiced these and your feeling confident it’s time tofuture pace.

Future pacing is just the process of visualising a future moment when you’ll need to employ these techniques and pre-rehearsing how it will all play out in your mind so that when the time comes it will feel like you’ve already dress rehearsed it so vividly that it’s just a matter of going through the motions.

So, I want you to imagine the next time you will be asked to perform under pressure and you feel it may be difficult for you.

Now I want you to imagine yourself in that situation from a third person perspective (so you are outside your body watching yourself).

Next I want you to give that mental scene the modalities we matched from the ideal, safe comparison we chose in the “Matching Modalities” exercise above. Notice how your feelings toward this situation are changing already!

Put your shoulders back, breathe deep and when you get to a critical moment in the imagined scenario…

Make the anchor signal you practiced above. Feel how the rush of confidence flows through you and see yourself mentally and even physically get a boost in that image in your mind.

Next you are going to imagine a moment during the scenario where you actively use the Zen Presence technique described above and feel completely calm and in the moment, focused on the present and not reliving or predicting anything, just getting completely in the zone and giving all your focus to the action you are required to do at that exact moment.

Now skip to the end of the scenario and see yourself completely satisfied and happy with your performance. See yourself smiling and feeling great.

Now shift from 3rd person (out of body) perspective and put yourself firmly in the drivers seat of the 1st person perspective by jumping into your body and experiencing those feelings of satisfication and happiness through your own eyes.

You can practice these techniques as much as you need to feel confident before the big day and remember that any time during your day to day life when you find yourself feeling confident to also make the Anchor sign we outlined above in order to further the strength of association between this signal and that emotion you wish to experience.

I have used these techniques for my football games and they have helped me a lot! They have helped me approach each game with a more positive and optimistic mindset, give me a boost when I need it during the game and quickly get me centred again when I’ve made a mistake which could otherwise risk derailing me for the rest of the game.

And don’t forget just how powerful your physiology is… Head up, shoulders back, breathe deeply and SMILE! These little shifts in your physical state can make a huge difference to your emotional state.

Try all this stuff out for yourself, see how powerful your mind is in creating your own reality and realize that you are not a slave to chance, you can in fact stack the deck in your favour if you’re willing to put in the mental preparation needed to perform to your peak when the pressure is on.

If you would like to learn more of these things for yourself and become an Internationally Certified NLP Master then click the link HERE to learn more about what I can honestly say is the BEST course I’ve ever done not just in terms of helping others but also helping myself!