In Wednesday’s post (8th January), I spoke about performance anxiety and began to put together some action steps for preventative self-help. I explained the theory behind REBT (Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy) which counters the common held assumption that ‘things’ make us feel bad. REBT (a form of CBT) argues that it’s not things that make us feel bad, but the irrational beliefs we have about how things ‘should’ or ‘must’ be that make us feel bad. If we can identify our beliefs and see that they are irrational, we can amend them and begin to change how we feel about a situation.
I detailed a series of questions I ask clients which highlight the beliefs that cause their anxiety and help them to realise their beliefs are irrational. Identifying and disputing irrational beliefs and re-wording them to make them rational are the first steps in relieving future performance anxiety.
Our thoughts, plus our emotions cause our behaviour
If we experience performance anxiety (or any kind of anxiety), the following sequence plays out:
You’re about to give a presentation 100 people –
Thoughts = I’m dreadful at giving presentations. I become a total mess. I’m going to look stupid and everyone will talk about me behind my back!
Emotion = Anxiety
When we feel anxious, body sensations such as shaking, sweating and blushing begin. We start to focus on these and make our anxiety worse by worrying about them. To try and relieve this added anxiety, we start to adopt ‘safety’ behaviours to mask what is happening from others. While in the short term, these safety behaviours help relieve the added anxiety, in the long term they begin to add to it.
Let me show you how this plays out with an example –
Before the presentation, you anticipated that the anxiety would make your neck flush and you would sweat more. The safety behaviour you took on to relieve your worry about this was to wear more layers of clothing to absorb the sweat and to wear your shirt buttoned up to the neck to help disguise the flushing. However, during the presentation you feel hot from the extra layers of clothing and feel like your flushing is even more obvious; in the long term, your safety behaviour in maintaining your anxiety, not relieving it.
Another scenario might be that your hands start to shake during the presentation and you try to hide them as much as possible. You avoid picking up your notes or drinking any water. However your mouth begins to dry out and your become focussed on the discomfort.
Changing your behaviour, changes your thoughts and emotions
In REBT, the idea is that we can try to change our emotions by changing our thoughts first (as described in Wednesday’s post) however for some of us, changing just our thoughts is sometimes not enough to change how we feel. In this case, if we can change our behaviour, we can think differently and therefore feel differently.
When we experience anxiety, we make predictions about things that ‘might’ happen or how we ‘might’ feel in a particular situation. When you take part in a behaviour experiment for anxiety, you put yourself in a situation where you know you will feel anxious and you purposefully ‘drop’ your safety behaviours (as they only serve to maintain anxiety in the long run). The idea is that before you go ahead and put yourself in the situation, you list what ‘safety’ behaviours you are likely to adopt how you think you will feel in the situation if you stopped yourself from using them. The next step is to go ahead and do the activity (without the behaviours) and assess afterwards how you felt; were the outcomes as negative as you had predicted?
The purpose of this is not to throw yourself in at the deep-end. Your first experiment should make you feel uncomfortable but not panic-stricken and put off. You should aim to move further out of your comfort zone with each activity. You can begin by writing a list of activities you can do that will make you feel anxious and grade them from 1-10. Start at 1 and work your way up to 10 as you begin to realise your negative predictions are not coming true.
If you can get feedback from others, then make sure you do. Did they see your hands shaking? What were their thoughts when/if they did? Try to get feedback from a mix of people, not just your friends.
Before you do the experiment, you may need to return to the questioning process I went through on Wednesday’s post to help recognise any irrational beliefs you hold over your safety behaviours to diminish them first.
I’ve attached a behaviour experiment record sheet, with an example to show you what to do (from http://www.psychologytools.org/).