• Wed, Aug 3 2011

Bullish Life: How to Bitchslap Performance Anxiety

Jennifer Dziura writes life coaching advice every Tuesday here on TheGloss, and career coaching advice Fridays on TheGrindstone.

In the past decade, I have coached hundreds of people through standardized tests.

While a few genuinely have panic attacks and require the care of a mental health professional, most just suffer from the sort of fight-or-flight response that two million years of evolution have decided is an appropriate response to heights, snakes, and being asked questions regarding the rate at which a cylindrical tank will empty if it is simultaneously being filled and leaking and also the radius of the tank is the square root of a variable.

My students have ranged from Wall Street types to neurotically-delicate flowers, and have responded to a panoply of approaches, from “FEAR IS JUST YOUR BODY GETTING PUMPED TO HULK-SMASH THE TEST!” to “If you have to let a question or two go, it’s okay! No guilt required! It’s like a cheat day on your diet — you’re supposed to cheat!” But there are a few big ideas that I think underlie those different approaches, and that apply to a world of performance situations beyond standardized tests.

If you’re freaking out before a big job interview, presentation, or meeting your boyfriend’s mom who happens to be more or less Anna Wintour, here are some ideas.

Accept that bad things will happen, and expect all of them.

I always tell people: the day you wake up to take the GMAT, you will have a stomach bug, someone will break up with you, the train will be late, the receptionist at the testing center will be rude, and the first question on the test will be in Catalan and you will miss it for that reason, and also because of your suddenly-acquired case of glaucoma. It will be like The Amazing Race and you will need to complete a Siberian triathlon after you have been infected with hookworms.

This kind of kills all the worries. A person can expend a lot of emotional energy worrying about one thing — “What if I don’t get there on time?” or “What if I suddenly get my period during the presentation and literally everyone somehow knows and it’s exactly like a nightmare I had when I was eleven before I realized that periods don’t work that way?”

Expecting all bad things to happen generally leaves you pretty happy when only a few of them do, and also frees you up to practice during less than ideal circumstances. For instance, when my test prep students tell me that they came to tutoring on only two hours sleep or their boss is mad at them, I tell them, “Good, then we are accomplishing the goal of simulating real life testing conditions! You need to practice concentrating when everything is terrible.” (See also: Bullish Life: Responding to Disappointment with Awesomeness.) Same deal with making a friend mock-interview you, or memorizing your lines for an audition even though you are very upset about something else. Practice under duress is better than “perfect” practice.

Similarly, research supports the idea that “visualizing success” doesn’t work. Imagining everything going perfectly is counterproductive, reducing your energy levels as you let your brain relax and enjoy the fantasy of achievement. A recent article in Fast Company (How “Positive” Thinking Sets You Up To Fail) reports:

A new set of studies by NYU psychologists Heather Barry Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen offers insight into why this kind of thinking isn’t just useless, but actually sets you up for failure. These researchers found that people who imagined an uncertain and challenging future reported feeling significantly more energized, and accomplished much more, than those who idealized their future. The purely “positive” thinkers’ lower energy levels even showed up in objective, physiological measurements.

That is, visualizing is great — as long as what you’re visualizing is overcoming obstacles. Visualize yourself responding appropriately (or just pushing through) the worst-case scenario. If you’re mentally prepared for your job interview to end with hand-to-hand combat, it’s kind of hard to be scared about being asked to pontificate on your greatest weakness.

(See also the time I cockblocked Thanksgiving: Bullish: Gratitude is Nice, But Don’t Let It Keep You From Action.)

Mentally stay within the game.

People falter when they think about extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, motivation.

When you’re taking a standardized test, you can’t think about grad school, being done with testing, your score on the test, the new job you might get as a result of grad school, the money you will make from this new job, or anything else besides the test itself. When you’re trying to promote your career by making speeches for local business organizations, you can’t think about new clients and a million dollars. You have to stay in the game; you have to think about excelling in, and even enjoying, what you’re doing right now. Forget the “why” and fully invest yourself in the game.

I tell my GMAT students, “If you were going to compete in the Olympics and you went in thinking about your gold medal and the parade they’d throw for you back home, you would fail. You can’t think about the rewards. You need to think about being really excited to go nail 37 math questions, and then spend your eight-minute break thinking about how you are really excited to go nail 41 verbal questions.” (The GMAT is weird.)

Whether you need to talk to a boss about promoting you or solving a difficult situation, or you’ve got an audition or a meeting with an agent, you have to keep your mind in the span of time limited to your performance; you won’t become a movie star if you’re thinking about becoming a movie star instead of thinking about the audition.

Overload the anxiety circuits.

While I’ve been casually helping people with anxiety for a long time, it never really occurred to me to write about it here until Monday, when I showed up to take a standardized test, which is something I do regularly as part of keeping my resume fresh. (See Bullish: How to Run Your Career Like a Business.)

Computer-adaptive standardized tests such as the GMAT and GRE are administered at for-profit testing centers that resemble extremely gray (and also slightly beige) interrogation centers in some oppressive but extremely bureaucratic nation. Upon my arrival, I was made to fill out some paperwork, put my things in a locker, and then sit in a chair and stare at other people turning out their pockets and being “wanded” with an airport-style metal detector. I was told that technical difficulties were causing a delay. I had to ask a very rude lady for the code to the bathroom. I waited.

After half an hour, I realized that I was actually feeling a fairly unreasonable level of pressure and nervousness (if you’ve written a book on how to beat the test, you should theoretically experience the absolute zero of nervousness when taking the test). And then I realized: this is the exact same feeling I have every time I fly alone to a foreign country and get off the plane with only an ATM card and the assumption that taxis and commercial transactions probably work mostly the same way in different places. (See Bullish: How to Travel Like a Gentlewoman.)

And then it hit me: If I had not gotten lost in Bangalore, jumped out of an airplane, eaten tacos from a basket on the front of a man’s bicycle in a rather dangerous pocket of Mexico City, and been sued (I don’t recommend all of these), my circuits would be completely overloaded by now. Dear god, you can’t go losing your stress-virginity when you’re going to be receiving a percentile score! You’ve got to get that out of the way well beforehand.

If you are a constantly trembling stresspuppy, I highly recommend booking a ticket someplace right now, alone. Honestly, I think that, since we’ve pretty much all had sex and it’s really not necessarily all that adventurous, it’s solo travel that truly makes you a woman. If you have only ever traveled under the protection of some big dude who others sort of assume is in charge, or in a protective pack of other humans, there is some part of your inner soul that has not yet hit puberty. (I mean to encourage, not offend! I’m aware that travel can be expensive and that some of us are physically attached to machines that do our breathing for us, so this isn’t practical for everyone; jumping out of planes or rappelling down the sides of very tall objects might also have the same effect.)

This is not a new idea — people who seek treatment for phobias usually end up doing some kind of “systematic desensitization” therapy, often with virtual reality simulations so as to cut down on liability from therapists constantly taking their patients to observation decks and cliffs (or wherever you go to access a lot of spiders).

But there’s also a therapy called “flooding” — just overload the phobic person with some massive version of her fear (shutting a claustrophobic person in a coffin! taking an acrophobic up the side of a building in one of those window-washing things!) under the theory that an extreme fear response can’t last forever. How long can you scream and shake for? Thirty minutes, max? And then you’re pretty much just hanging out on a vertiginous rock ledge or whatever, and you feel empowered and from then on, nothing is that big a deal. (Of course, most people prefer the gradual method, but you aren’t most people, right? That’s why you read these articles!)

Need to ask your boss for a raise? Go to a bar and ask out five men who are way out of your league. (Maybe there’s a male modeling convention in town?) Or walk into the local shooting range (in New York: on West 20th Street!) and ask for lessons in shooting a gun.

In the days following, sitting at a desk and making a case for another eight grand a year will seem about as stressful as ordering a panini at the deli.

(See also: Bullish Life: How to Communicate with Chutzpah and Bullish: Thinking More Productively About Money.)

I hope these ideas have been galvanizing in conquering performance anxiety! And always remember: very little that modern humans face in developed nations is going to result in jail, starvation, or death.

There are things in life much more important than standardized test scores, and fortunately, the same techniques that allow us to bubble in answers with equanimity can also allow us to perform in other aspects of our lives with calmness, panache, and even pleasure.

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  • Stephanie

    You described my test center, receptionist and “wander” exactly. Maybe it’ s just in NYC? Though the man at the desk was unexpectedly perky! Great tips though, thanks! (Wish I had this before I took the GREs!)

  • Rebecca

    As a gal who’s struggled for years with performance anxiety, this might have been one of my favorite articles on The Gloss ever.

    I especially loved the bit about traveling and “flooding.” I just spent a month traveling alone in Holland with a weekend excursion to Germany during which I got stranded, somewhat lost, and harassed in Dusseldorf overnight. I’d never been more terrified in my life, but now that impending orchestra audition looks like a piece of cake (and I love cake). xD

  • Diana

    Taking the IELTS exam a year and a half ago was such an experience… I had left it for the absolute last moment, 19th of December. On the 20th I had a flight home. The previous night I managed not to sleep at all, packing and cleaning my room and reading a bit for the exam. Then I had to take an intercity train from Bremen to Cologne (the closest test centre that had had a place available for me of that date). It was winter and very snowy, so my train was delayed for 20 minutes, which resulted in running (and getting lost as I usually manage to do when in a hurry) and barely making it to the test in time. However, at that point, I was so tired and just grateful that I made it, that I didn’t care about anything else. I was the only one in the room that was giggling at something I found particularly funny. And then in the break between the written exam and the Speaking part of the test, I do the stupid thing of talking to my mother on the phone. She was so scared and surprised (not in a good way) that I wasn’t nervous, that it made me think that something was wrong with me, I should be nervous, which made me extremely nervous for the Speaking part of the test. The results? I did very well on the written part and not so well at the Speaking part.

    I’d say for me the best solution is not to think about anything test related right before or during any breaks. I mean unless I’m reviewing some stuff, thinking about it will just make me nervous.