How to Break the Cycle of Performance Anxiety: From Stressed to Best

Performance Anxiety

This article will provide comprehensive insights and actionable strategies on how to break the cycle of performance anxiety, empowering them to transition from a state of stress to achieving their best performance in any area of life.


Everyone experiences anxiety at some point, whether it is waiting for test results from a doctor, applying for a job, or trying to get to a party on time. But performance anxiety is something that arises in direct relation to an upcoming performance. This level of anxiety can manifest when you so much as think about the activity you need to perform. 

However, you can quickly transition from your stressed self to your best self when you learn how to break the cycle of performance anxiety. Breaking the cycle is not just a one-time thing. These steps and tips are tools you can apply regularly. The more you practice, the more control you will have over your anxiety and the better your personal resilience.

The Cycle of Performance Anxiety

The amygdala is part of the limbic system in the brain. This is where emotions like fear get processed. 

When the amygdala senses a threat, it sends things into the body. This can happen in situations of real danger or before a performance. The brain can react as intensely to potential threats as it does to real threats. 

The amygdala first sends messages to the bones. Osteocalcin is a signal for your bones to release stress responses into the system. Adrenaline is the hormone that increases heart racing and blood sugar. This causes responses like:

  • Sweating
  • Tremors
  • Shaking
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Cold tip of the nose
  • Clavicular hyperventilating 

If we stay in that adrenaline state longer, it becomes high stress in the form of cortisol, and high resting cortisol rates are bad for the mind and body. 

So, what can you do to learn how to get over performance anxiety?


Strategies to break the cycle of performance anxiety

There are several strategies you can try when figuring out how to break the cycle of performance anxiety. These include:

  1. Psychological techniques
  2. Preparation and practice
  3. Physical well-being
  4. Building a support system

Psychological Techniques:

Psychological techniques are the first thing you should turn to when trying to break the cycle of performance anxiety. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques

Cognitive behavioral therapy can provide several techniques for managing and breaking the cycle of performance anxiety. There are some cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that you can practice in your spare time and others that you might learn about through individual therapy. Some examples include the following:

Thought Tree

A thought tree is a written exercise that you can do at any time. Getting over performance anxiety can be made much simpler if you apply this thought tree exercise to any situation when you notice symptoms of anxiety.

The tree starts at the top:

  1. Take a piece of paper, and at the top of the paper, write down the issue that is causing your performance anxiety.
  2. Draw two arrows down from that issue, one on the left and one on the right.
    1. Ask yourself if this issue is something you can control. If it is, start on the left side of your paper by writing down one thing you can do to control the issue.
    2. If this isn’t something that you can control, then, on the right side, write down that it’s not within your control, and you need to let it go. From there, you might practice mindfulness, meditation, or breathwork to help you release any thoughts regarding the issue.
  3. If it is something within your control and there is an action you can take, be very specific about that action, noting:
    1. What it is, 
    2. Whether it involves other people
    3. When you can do it
    4. How you will do it
    5. What you need to do it
  4. At this point, wait until you’ve taken that action to come back to your tree. If the action is something that you can do but you need other people to do it, or you can’t do it until a few hours from now when you get off work, then put the thought aside and tell yourself that it’s something you will place on a mental shelf until the time comes. And when the time comes, you can take that box off of the mental shelf and come back to it.

Note: If the same issue causes performance anxiety again, go through the tree exercise as many times as it takes to determine what subsequent action you need to take to control the issues that are causing your performance anxiety.

Worry Time

Worry time is a technique where you set aside a specific amount of time, around 5 minutes, during the day where you are allowed to ruminate or worry.

Sean has an upcoming presentation at work. He is running a training class over the span of six days, and he has a lot of performance anxiety when it comes to public speaking. Lately, Sean has been significantly overwhelmed with his performance anxiety and has struggled to focus on his work, finish his preparations, get good sleep, or stop himself from hyperventilating and sweating.

As the training approaches, Sean finds that he is constantly worried, and this results in performance anxiety symptoms throughout the day that interfere with his daily function.

When Sean practices the worry time technique, it helps him control the level of his performance anxiety by breaking the cycle when it starts. Instead of being overwhelmed by fears over his upcoming training, every time Sean starts to think about it, he reminds himself that he’s not allowed to think about that until his designated worry time.

He chooses 3:00 p.m. as his worry time because that’s one of his afternoon breaks, which means that throughout the day, he is able to be more productive and stop the cycle of performance anxiety from interfering with his daily function. At 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon, he sets an alarm for 3 minutes, during which time he goes over some of the worst-case scenarios about what might actually happen and reminds himself that even if he makes mistakes, nothing bad will come from that.

performance anxiety cycle

Mindfulness and meditation practices

Mindfulness and meditation practices are great ways to overcome the cycle of anxiety because they help you pay attention to all of your current feelings, and accept them for what they are, and focus on the things that are most important. 

Sharon is conducting a local choir in a few weeks. This is her first time as a conductor, and she is overwhelmed with performance anxiety. Even though she has the education and the musical background, every time she gets up to make a speech or start a rehearsal, she starts shaking and sweating. She finds it difficult to breathe, and sometimes, she has to step out of the room to control her anxiety before she can come back into the choir room. 

Sharon struggles with good sleep, and her anxiety has taken over most of her daily thoughts, causing her to feel sick to her stomach with nervousness, which interferes with her appetite and leads her to binge eat unhealthy food during the day. 

Sharon can’t seem to shake the anxious thoughts, so she tries to suppress them, and she ends up running around all day without accomplishing anything. 

When Sharon practices mindfulness and meditation, it helps her to break that cycle of performance anxiety by taking time to pause and reflect whenever she feels her anxiety levels creeping up.

Mindfulness has taught Sharon to bring her attention back to the present by closing her eyes and focusing on her breathing. Short meditations help her utilize breath work to combat the physical symptoms of performance anxiety, like constricting blood vessels. Meditation also helps her stay grounded in the present with things that are within her control rather than getting stuck in her anxiety about the future.

Mindfulness and meditation practices are highly effective because they can be used in any circumstance. For example:

  • If you experience performance anxiety while you are driving on your way to a show, to work, or to a sporting event, you can use driving meditation, where you refocus your thoughts on the present moment every time you see a stoplight or a stop sign.
  • If you experience performance anxiety that causes jitteriness and tremors, you can use walking meditation or moving meditation like Tai Chi or Qigong to physically work through the adrenaline and burn it off while also improving blood flow.
  • If you experience performance anxiety that interferes with a healthy diet, you can use eating meditation to slow down how quickly you eat and pay more attention to the process of eating.


If you’ve ever seen someone with a paper bag holding it over their nose and mouth when they are panicking, then you are already familiar with this type of breathwork. 

Why is breathwork effective?

Carbon dioxide calms the brain down. It creates vasodilation, which causes the blood vessels to open. When you are stuck in a performance anxiety cycle, the blood vessels shrink. Using breathwork, like breathing into and out of a paper bag, helps you breathe in more carbon dioxide. This warms the body and brain up, forcing the veins to open again and allowing for better blood flow. 

But you don’t need a paper bag to build carbon dioxide. Learning how to get over performance anxiety can be done without any equipment, using meditative breathing, called “Square Breathing.”

  1. For this, exhale for a count of 4 or 6 through the mouth, and when you have pushed all of the air out of your body, pause. 
  2. Hold this pause for the same length of time before you inhale again.
  3. When you inhale, do so for a slow count of 4 to 6 seconds through the nose. 
  4. Finally, wait at the top of the breath before you exhale again and repeat the process. 

This is a natural way of getting over performance anxiety by forcing the blood vessels to open and the body to break the cycle of performance anxiety. The carbon dioxide builds in your blood when you exhale, and the hold at the end of your breath creates “air hunger,” which helps send messages to the brain to calm down. 

But what if this isn’t enough for you, in the moment, to overcome performance anxiety? 

You can increase the intensity of the exercise by adding physical body-weight movements while maintaining the same breathing work. For this:

  1. Exhale for a count of 4 or 6 through the mouth, and when you have pushed all of the air out of your body, pause. 
  2. Hold this pause for the same length of time before you inhale again.
  3. As you hold your exhale, do a series of short quarter squats until you feel the urge to breathe again.
  4. When you inhale, do so for a slow count of 4 to 6 seconds through the nose. 
  5. Finally, wait at the top of the breath before you exhale again and repeat the process.

Preparation and Practice:

Preparation and practice are key to making these techniques a simple and regular part of your daily life. The more you can incorporate them, the less likely you are to struggle with ongoing anxiety because of the resilience that you build.

Importance of thorough preparation and practice

The techniques above are most effective when they are things you use regularly. It will be harder to bring your attention to the present and calm your thoughts. 

If, however, you practice and prepare, then you will find that the application of things like breathwork or CBT exercises happens naturally. 

Techniques for Effective Practice Sessions

The best way to have effective practice sessions is to incorporate the techniques above with regularity. For example:

  • Try to make meditation a regular part of your day. If you prefer, choose a set time to practice meditation every day, whether that’s in the morning or before you go to bed. You can start with guided meditations that are short, only a few minutes, and work your way up to longer and longer meditations as you find the process of calming your mind and your anxiety simpler.
  • Utilize worry time techniques and similar cognitive behavioral therapy tips with equal regularity. There is no reason you can’t, whenever you face a small issue or trial, use the tree exercise to learn to let things go that are not within your control. This will teach you to avoid ruminating on things, something that increases anxiety and performance anxiety in particular.

Physical Well-being:

Physical well-being plays a substantial role in your mood and your anxiety levels. Thankfully, there are things you can do to boost your physical health.

Role of physical exercise and nutrition in managing anxiety

Physical exercise and nutrition are two of the three most important things you can do to maintain good health. Much like the psychological techniques listed above, these are not things that you should only employ when you are experiencing high levels of performance anxiety. Rather, these are things that you should utilize regularly so that they become a natural part of your routine and help boost your health and resilience when things get challenging.

Physical exercise has so many benefits, not least of which include the fact that it:

  1. Improves your sleep quality, which has a direct impact on mood, 
  2. It boosts your neurochemicals and hormones that also control mood and reduce stress levels and
  3. It can help burn off unnecessary stress or adrenaline from performance anxiety.

Importance of sleep in reducing performance anxiety

Sleep is equally important. When you sleep, your body is able to flush toxins from your brain and regulate hormones that have a direct impact on things like appetite and mood. Sleep hygiene is an essential way to maintain good sleep quality on a regular basis. the more adequately you sleep on a regular basis, the less likely you are to be heavily affected by performance anxiety symptoms.

Checking vitals

Temperature and pulse can be used to track anxiety levels throughout the day. Things like Apple watches can help you monitor your resting pulse when sitting and talking. If it is between 70-90 bpm, that is normal. But once it starts climbing above 90, then it may be a sign of performance anxiety. 

When you wake up, your temperature should be around 98.7. But if, throughout the day, your temperature gets significantly higher, then it could be a sign that stress responses have triggered anxiety.

getting over performance anxiety

Building a Support System:

Another key skill in overcoming performance anxiety is to build a support system. That system should include friends, peers, mentors, or professionals. 

Seeking support

There are several ways you can seek support for performance anxiety, and you might use one or more of the following in conjunction with the tips above:


Peers can be a great resource. Your peers can offer social support, even if they don’t have experiences that are exactly like yours. With peer support, you can share some of your anxiety or symptoms, talk about the coping skills you’ve tried, and get help from others based on things they have tried. 


Mentors are people who may or may not have been in your shoes. These are people who can offer guidance on how to break the cycle of performance anxiety. 

Mentors should be specific to your needs. For example:

  • If you are struggling with performance anxiety with presentations at work, you might look for a business mentor who has tricks and tips for improving charisma and personability while presenting. 
  • If you are interested in getting help combatting performance anxiety as a singer or dancer, then you might want a vocal coach who can offer actionable tips on breaking the cycle of performance anxiety right before a show.

Therapists and other mental health professionals can be a great help if your performance anxiety cycle is related to something deeper, like an anxiety disorder. Professionals can prescribe medication to target underlying mental health conditions and monitor your progress with you. 

You can work with professionals using individual and group therapy with or without the use of medication. Therapy like cognitive behavioral therapy can equip you with personalized and age-appropriate coping skills to change your relationship to anxiety and stop the performance anxiety cycle. 

Joining support groups or communities.

Support groups can offer a form of outreach and support that may not come from other places. Peers, for example, can offer moral support but may not have insight on how to apply mindfulness to breaking the cycle of performance anxiety. 

Check your local community centers or look online for digital support groups. These are often a great accompaniment to professional treatment and can be specialized groups specific to performance anxiety. 

Strategies for maintaining progress and preventing relapse

If you have overcome performance anxiety but have found that symptoms have crept back up after a change in work or an upcoming challenge, don’t be afraid to go back and apply all of these same techniques again. The best way to maintain progress and prevent relapse is to continue with each of these steps on a regular basis. 

Meditation, for example, doesn’t have to be something you turn to when you are jittery, shaking, and sweating. It should be something that you incorporate into your daily life as a preventative measure.

If you feel yourself struggling with a relapse and you notice that the symptoms of your performance anxiety are coming back. The last thing you want to do is beat yourself up over it or increase the amount of worry you have. Instead, go back over the tips and techniques that you found most effective the first time you overcame your performance anxiety.

  • Did meditation work best right before a performance?
  • Did you find that changing your diet helps you improve your sleep quality?
  • Has something changed recently that has disrupted your sleep patterns or your nutrition?
  • Are you working out regularly, or could you improve?
  • Would it be helpful to go back and try some of the CBT techniques you did early on?

By asking yourself all of these questions, you can determine where the lapses have happened, what changes have crept in on your progress, and what you can do to maintain your overall success. 

Summing up

If you want to know how to break the cycle of performance anxiety, there are several key strategies that include building a support system, maintaining good physical health, applying psychological techniques, and practicing them regularly. If you are struggling to overcome performance anxiety, don’t wait to take your first steps.

Live without anxiety or exhaustion


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