5 Ways to Manage Performance Anxiety Like a Pro

Contrary to how it may seem, everybody gets anxious in high-performance situations…

  • CEOs get panicky before big speeches
  • Surgeons get nerves as they walk into surgery
  • Athletes wake up in the middle of the night worrying about tomorrow’s big game

What separates elite performers is not the presence or absence of anxiety, it’s how they manage it.

After years of working with a lot of high-performers who’ve struggled with anxiety, here are five of the best strategies I’ve found to manage performance anxiety like a pro.

1. Reframe Anxiety as Adrenaline

Under the hood, all anxiety is just adrenaline.

In any situation that the brain interprets as potentially dangerous or challenging, its natural response is to rev up the sympathetic nervous system—that is, your fight or flight response…

  • Adrenaline releases
  • Breathing and heart rate elevate
  • Muscles tense
  • And your mind goes into problem-solving mode: anticipating threats, planning solutions, mining old experiences for new insights, etc.

This is all incredibly helpful, if a little unpleasant.

See, adrenaline is actually one of the greatest performance enhancers known to man. Everything from reaction time and hand-eye coordination to critical thinking improves when you’ve got adrenaline flowing through your veins.

In fact, we’ve known this for over a 100 years—ever since two psychologists, Yerkes and Dodson, showed that optimal performance actually requires a significant amount of stress/anxiety.

The trouble is that instead of welcoming this hit of adrenaline, we label it as anxiety and interpret it as a bad thing. Now, in addition to some helpful stress about the challenge in front of us, we’re also worrying about our anxiety. And guess what happens when you start getting anxious about being anxious…. You get REALLY anxious! So much so that now your performance really does start to decrease.

The implication is straightforward:

The key to optimal performance is to accept your initial surge of anxiety.

Of course, anxiety doesn’t feel good. But frankly, so what! Neither does lifting weights, practicing chords on the guitar, or having a difficult conversation with your spouse. But just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad. And quite often, the best things in life require more than a little discomfort.

So, rather than catastrophizing your performance anxiety, practice accepting it.

And one of the best ways to do this is to reframe your anxiety as adrenaline.

When you feel yourself getting anxious, pause, take a breath, and then remind yourself that anxiety is just my brain giving me a little extra rocket fuel that will actually help me perform better, not worse.

Instead of:

Why am I so anxious? This is going to be bad…


Okay, feeling some nerves… Here comes my adrenaline boost!

Elite performers know that despite feeling uncomfortable, anxiety is not the enemy. And in fact, with the right mindset, it can actually become your best friend.

2. Don’t Be Anti-Anxiety, Be Pro-Confidence

We just talked about the importance of not framing anxiety as a bad thing or an enemy, and instead, embracing it as a helper—your mind’s way of giving you a boost for a difficult challenge.

An extension of this idea is to stop focusing so much on trying to get rid of anxiety, and instead, focus on acting with confidence.

For example:

  • You’re walking into an important meeting with other senior leaders of your organization to report on your team’s quarterly performance.
  • You can feel your chest tighten a bit as your mind cycles rapid fire through all sorts of worst-case scenarios: What if I’m the weakest link? Our results could have been better if only I’d pushed everyone a bit harder… And why am I getting so anxious? I should be confident, not anxious and insecure…
  • But you catch yourself: Wait a second… Yes, I’m a little nervous, but that anxiety is really just adrenaline kicking in to give me a boost. Also, everyone gets a little nervous before important meetings and high-stakes situations—even big time athletes and politicians.
  • Then, you shift your thinking past the anxiety toward your goals: Just because I’m a bit anxious doesn’t mean I can’t do a great job in there. I’ve prepared. Our team’s results were not perfect, but they’re definitely solid. It got this.

Here’s the key insight:

Confidence isn’t about getting rid of anxiety; it’s about taking action despite your anxiety.

If you think that you can only be confident and perform well by getting rid of or avoiding anxiety, you’re setting yourself up for failure and disappointment because anxiety is inevitable—and no amount of confidence makes you immune to it.

Top-tier performers understand this. They know that being anti-anxiety only leads to more anxiety and worse performance.

Instead, they briefly acknowledge and validate the anxiety, then shift their thinking on to what they need to do and taking action despite their anxiety.

This is the confidence mindset—the belief that you can perform well despite your anxiety and fear.

And it only comes from being willing to feel anxious and getting on with what matters anyway. Like any other skill in life, it takes practice (and patience).

But the results are very much worth it: Instead of being a prisoner to your anxiety, the confidence mindset gives you the freedom to move past it.

So, instead of asking yourself:

What can I do to be less anxious?

Remind yourself:

Confidence is the belief that I can perform despite feeling anxious.

And the more you practice, the stronger that belief will be.

3. Defend Your Sleep Habits

This one’s gonna seem a little out of left field, but hear me out…

One of the most underrated causes of excess anxiety is poor sleep.

When we have chronically poor sleep, we have a harder time keeping difficult thoughts and emotions in check, including worry and anxiety.

You see this with kids all the time: The difference between a kid who’s just woken up from sleeping well and one who’s 45 minutes past their bedtime is… dramatic!

The thing is we adults aren’t any different. Just think about how much harder it is to stay calm and collected after a triggering event at the end of the evening after a long day vs first thing in the morning when you’re rested and fresh.

Well, the same goes for anxiety…

It’s much easier to keep anxiety in check when you’re well-rested.

The problem is that many high-achieving individuals are so used to burning the candle at both ends and sacrificing their sleep that they often don’t even remember what it’s like to be consistently well-rested!

Of course, everyone knows about sleep hygiene and having good sleep habits…

  • Giving yourself 60-90 minutes of calm, non-striving wind-down time every evening
  • Waking up at a consistent time each morning
  • Not worrying or problem-solving in bed
  • etc.

The problem is almost no one does these consistently. I mean really consistently. There’s always some excuse about Well, just this once, I’m going to respond to these emails in bed. Or I know I shouldn’t lay here in bed worrying but I just really want to get another 30 minutes of sleep.

That’s like Caitlin Clark saying just this once I’m going to blow off practice. Or Steve Jobs saying Just this one time we’re going to let a sloppy product slide.

The best of the best get there because they’re disciplined about the things that matter most.

If you want to perform like a pro, you need to rest like a pro. And that means defending your sleep habits instead of compromising on them.

If you’re not sure where to start with better sleep habits, here are 3 of the most essential:

  1. Build a sleep runway. 60-90 minutes before your typical bedtime that is completely free from effortful, striving, goal-directed activities. Protect it ruthlessly.
  2. Go to bed when you’re sleepy, not tired. If you get into bed when you’re physically exhausted but not mentally ready for sleep, you will only end up worrying and frustrated about not falling asleep, which will, of course, make it harder to sleep.
  3. Never worry in bed. If you associate your bed with worries and problem solving, it will eventually become a cue for wakefulness and anxiety. If you’re an overthinker and worry a lot in bed, try some scheduled worry.

4. Prepare for Performance, Not Just Content

While a lot of anxiety is not actually based on reality, some of it is. Specifically, when you consistently fail to prepare well for a high-stakes situation, anxiety can be your brain’s way of letting you know that you need to prepare more or better.

But preparing well isn’t just about the content of your performance. It’s about the performance itself.

Two quick examples:

  • I was working once with a senior executive who frequently had to give speeches at conferences but got terribly anxious in the days leading up to them. And when I asked him how many times he rehearsed his speeches before giving them, he stared at me blankly and said: Well, I don’t really rehearse them word for word. It’s the same old speech. I mostly just review my notes a couple times.
  • Another client was an attorney who frequently got anxiety attacks anytime she had to present in front of senior partners at her firm. I remember asking her: So, tell me how you practice for these partner presentations. To which she looked back at me a bit with a slightly confused look and said: I know the material backward and forward… I just don’t see why I get so anxious.

The mistake both these clients made was to prepare for the content of their performances but not the performance itself. And the resulting anxiety was in large part due to that.

They were both understandably anxious about their respective performances because their mind knew they weren’t really prepared despite what they thought.

The solution to this is relatively straightforward, though not always easy. And it usually takes the form of more “dress rehearsals.”

A dress rehearsal means practicing the performance itself as if it was real.

For example:

  • If you get nervous before giving speeches in public, you might recruit your spouse and a couple friends to sit in the living room while you deliver your speech in its entirety.
  • Or, if you get nervous before presentations, stop scrolling through your slides over and over again, and instead, wrangle a few coworkers into an empty conference room and literally deliver the presentation to them just as you would the real thing.

A lot of performance anxiety can be alleviated by learning to prepare not just for the content of your performance, but for the act of performing itself.

5. Accept the Anxiety, Control the Worry

Much of performance anxiety comes down to control issues. Specifically, trying to control things you can’t, and as a result, ignoring the things you can.

For example:

  • Suppose you were a professional athlete and you spent all week before a big match imagining your opponent’s best player getting sick so that they couldn’t play and you’d have a better shot at winning.
  • This is obviously a silly way to spend your time and energy before a big performance for the simple reason that you can’t control whether your opponent gets sick (not ethically, anyway!)
  • What’s more, by putting all your time and energy into that uncontrollable thing, you didn’t put much time or energy into things you actually have control over like practicing, reviewing game film, etc.

As ridiculous as this example sounds, it’s a common trap many high-performers fall into—the result being not only worse performance, but more anxiety too.

Here’s how it works…

  • Because anxiety feels so bad, many people fall into the trap of trying to feel less anxious—that is, they try to control their anxiety.
  • Unfortunately, you don’t have direct control over your anxiety—or any other emotion, for that matter. There’s no dial to decrease anxiety by 20% or a button that gives you a 50% confidence boost.
  • Now, the first big problem here is that this doesn’t work—your anxiety doesn’t budge, and if anything, you get more anxious about being anxious despite your best efforts to control it!
  • But the bigger problem is this: All the time and energy you put into (impossibly) trying to control your anxiety, is all time and energy you aren’t putting toward something you can actually control: worry.
  • See, while we don’t have direct control over our emotions, we can control the thing that produces them: our thoughts. And if you struggle with anxiety, the cause of that anxiety is the mental habit of worrying.
  • The good news is, worry is a habit; and like all habits, it can be broken. You can actually stop worrying. Or at least worry a lot less, and when you do, the indirect effect will be lower anxiety.
  • But that’s awfully hard to do if you’re completely focused on your anxiety!

Here’s the takeaway:

Stop trying to control your anxiety, and start controlling your worrying instead.

When you notice yourself feeling anxious, briefly acknowledge and validate it, then refocus your attention on something productive. And if you notice worries intruding into your consciousness, do your best to let them go and refocus on the task at hand.

If you really want to get good at letting go of worries (and as a result, lowering your anxiety) the single best thing you can do is start (and stick with) a serious mindfulness training regimen.

All You Need to Know

The trick to dealing with performance anxiety is to stop trying to get rid of it, and instead, learn how to manage it more effectively.

Here are 5 practical ways to get started doing just that:

  1. Reframe Anxiety as Adrenaline
  2. Don’t Be Anti-Anxiety, Be Pro-Confidence
  3. Defend Your Sleep Habits
  4. Prepare for Performance, Not Just Content
  5. Accept the Anxiety, Control the Worry

Learn More About How to Manage Anxiety