This article is focused on start-line anxiety in runners, however, the explanation applies to all types of performance anxiety.
Imagine this: you’re getting ready for your first race. Your heart is racing and you’re sweating as you watch everyone line up at the start line. Are you going to be able to face your fear and race your heart out? Or are you going to sit this one out and miss out on what could be a personal best? Many people will turn the other way, missing out on a wonderful experience. The same sequence of events can also come up in other areas of life from work to relationships. You then have a choice to make: overcome your anxiety, or let it control everything you do (or don’t do).
One of the most common feelings in life is that of feeling uneasy when in unknown situations. Indeed, one of the most common reactions to anxiety is avoidance of situations where you find yourself feeling this way. This avoidance is a form of self-sabotage. Have you ever walked away from something important because it just felt ‘too hard’? This is what we’re talking about.
Although understanding the cause of your anxiety is important, the best way to overcome it is to look at how you respond to your fears. Sometimes the way we respond to fears can even feed fears and make them worse! By identifying how you respond to anxiety and working to change your counterproductive responses, you can overcome your anxiety and accomplish your goals.
The psychological explanation
An important element of psychology when it comes to fear and avoidance is something called ‘negative reinforcement’. This refers to behaviours which are rewarded because they remove unwanted feelings or stimuli. For example, when I have my car headlights on at night, an alarm goes off when I open my door to remind me to turn the lights off. That beeping is so annoying so to get it to stop, I turn off the lights. Doing so ends the beeping and peace is restored. In this situation the beeping is negatively reinforcing me to turn the lights off. It is rewarding me by removing the annoying noise, and the next time I use my headlights I’m more likely to turn the lights off before I open my door to avoid it.
Negative reinforcement in anxiety is avoidance. Each time you attempt to accomplish a goal but let fear stop you from achieving it, you are negatively reinforcing yourself and sabotaging your goals so you don’t have to feel fearful anymore! The more you avoid anxious situations, the more likely you are to avoid future anxiety-inducing situations and this becomes a vicious circle.
So what can you do to help yourself?
So how do you overcome avoidance behaviour and accomplish your goals? The answer is to catch yourself in the moment. Once you realise that you are avoiding anxiety, the next step is to force yourself to face your fear and see the situation through. Even if the situation doesn’t quite work out the way you hoped, mistakes can provide a valuable learning experience. It’s also important to remember that overcoming avoidance takes practice but with perseverance your anxiety may disappear altogether. The more you face those fears, the easier it will be to handle new ones, and the more goals you will accomplish!