Performance anxiety is a common aspect of goal pursuits. Some people are able to harness their anxiety and perform with exceptional preciseness. Others become flooded and overwhelm inhibits their abilities. In gymnastics, performers train for 100s of hours but can fall off the beam with an inability to harness their anxiety. Of course, experts in that area will tell us there are other things like a small step here. But, when a move that is mastered over 1000s of practice hours, the pressure of the moment certainly becomes a variable. Why do some players on the world’s biggest stages outperform or underperform? The answers and research on sports psychology are beyond the scope of this article. But, harnessing anxiety is a component.
Interestingly, talented individuals often struggle with anxiety. When I worked at a Big 10 University, many of the clients involved in our anxiety management groups were graduate school musicians. For some, it was dealing with the pressures related to performance.
In anxiety treatment, harnessing anxiety is one of the goals. For a person with social anxiety, the goals are learning conversation skills (or relearning them) and harnessing anxiety toward positive social situations. For an individual with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the goals include learning to tolerate uncertainty and to refrain from rituals. This involves harnessing anxiety toward replacement behaviors, new goals, and healthy relationships. I have great admiration for those great individuals who struggled with anxiety but then got help and learned to harness their anxiety in a beneficial way.
Serious or casual sports fans remember fondly some of the great moments of harnessed anxiety. How about “The Shot” by Michael Jordan in the 1989 playoffs, which really started an amazing playoff run over the next 10 years! As fans, we all have our favorite moments. As a college student, I had great admiration for our St. Thomas team that went to the final four – Karnell James in a defensive stance, John Tauer setting a screen and then efficiently moving his feet behind the three point line, or Mike Bergan going back door to Brent Longval (after he rubbed his chin as a signal to the playmaker) were all examples of great individual and team focus.
In life, we are challenged by the discipline of a combat marine. Ask them if they are scared, and they will tell you they don’t have time. Their focus, determination, and harnessed anxiety saves lives. Electricians know full well the risks of injury; they have learned to master their craft and they certainly don’t forget “that one time it was close.” It leads them to make each moment decisive in their work.
Then there is family ……………………………
During the upcoming holiday season, a very real problem is family anxiety. It can get suppressed with alcohol or other substances. Family get-togethers can trigger old feelings, unresolved anxieties and problems, unprocessed shame, guilt, rejection, and other negative emotional states. Rather than enjoy family, these unresolved issues lead people to relapse to their addictions. Some families don’t promote healthy communication, acceptance, tolerance of each other’s mistakes, and unconditional love. So, when families reunite during holiday time, genuine laughter is instead cynical and sarcastic. True joy is buried under old resentments and harsh criticisms.
Tips for harnessing anxiety for the holidays:
Have a sense of humor
Use anticipation to plan for conversations that you want to have (rather than ruminating over all the conversations you want to avoid).
Get perspective. No matter how challenging your family may be, there are other families with even more challenges.
Be realistic. Be aware of the impulse to expect perfection. The family gathering will not be perfect. The food won’t all be hot at the same time. Someone will make a rude remark. A child will have a meltdown. Remember that you don’t need a “perfect” holiday—a real holiday will involve some measure of joy and some measure of pain. Try to accept both as they come.
Use your drive to the gathering to list all the things that you are thankful for.
As uncomfortable as you feel, there are others who are feeling just as uncomfortable or maybe even more so. What can you do to put others at ease? Plan to be generous and welcoming to others.