Attention gone awry: performance anxiety

A teenager from the High School in which I work came to me today because she missed her final exam.

Her reason was not that she did not know or understand the material, nor was she sick, or held up due to an unforeseen emergency.  It was simply that she could not cope under the stress.

Performance anxiety is a pervading sense of nervous energy gone awry.  The mind wanders here and there and everywhere that is not the present moment.  Stillness is impossible.  Being aware and responding to the context in which you find yourself is essential – but performance anxiety acts like a cue ball that scatters all the rest in various directions until each takes on a life of its own, spiralling, without purpose or direction.

It can make a person feel incompetent.  Because even though you may know the material, your scattered attention is unable to attend to the task at hand, be it making a study plan, reading a paragraph, making notes or answering an exam question.

The mind is a muscle.  Channeling your attention to where we need it to go takes time and practice.

Start with the breath. Breathe in and out. Count slowly.  Make sure your belly rises as you draw in a deep breath over 4 seconds. Hold.  Release. Bit by bit.  Pause and repeat.

Bring your attention back to your breath. When it wanders into the future, into the worry of what will happen or could happen, bring it back to Now.  Breathe.

All that you can do is respond to the moment that faces you.  Ever.  Gather your courage and bring your attention back to the Now.  What is it that is asks of you?  Your fight or flight response may be activated by the fear of what may come.  Greet this fear.  It alerts you to focus and demands of your energy.  Breathe.  And respond.

Fear is not the enemy.  Without fear, we would not know when to fight, freeze or flee. Bring your attention back to what your fear is telling you.  What is the best way in which you can expend your energy, right here, right now?  Do you need to to take a walk to calm your mind? Or put on a calming melody?  Perhaps you will wash your face or take off your shoes so the soles of your feet can feel the comforting grip of the solid, reliable ground.  Breathe.  And release.

Performance anxiety is your mind’s horsepower behaving like an a band of horses with no direction.  Powerful but purposeless.  This energy is a gift.  It is that energy that will allow you to act or withdraw, forge ahead or change direction.  Harness it.

Harnessing your mind’s energy is probably the most powerful skill one can acquire. Channelling this energy in the best way possible in the moment that stands before you is the challenge.

Start with resting your attention on your breath.  It connects the inner you with the world around you. Take in what you need.  Exhale what you don’t.

Breathe.  And release.

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