With Success Comes Anxiety

“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.” ~ Epictetus

I speak, frequently, in public. While theatrics and staged productions are not my thing, I have long been drawn to oratory and the art of verbal communication. However, this does not mean I am always comfortable being in front of a microphone or an audience. Like most others, I experience my own version of anxiety before I speak or present.

When you think about an upcoming performance or situation do butterflies seem to fly wildly in your stomach? The butterflies, sweaty palms, and pounding heartbeat are all physical signs of your increasing anxiety or anticipation of what is about to happen or could happen. Note: could happen. How you interpret or give meaning to these physical signs could severely affect the performance that follows them.

When you notice these physical signs and interpret them as positive or helpful to your preparation and readiness to perform, they can be stimulating yet reassuring. Such an interpretation calmly excites you and increases your desire to get going and engage the situation. Your performance will likely be smooth, fun, and skilled.

When you interpret the physical signs of anxiety as negative or confirming your fear, they will escalate and possibly interfere with skills, choices, and focus. Your fear of outcomes, mistakes, and personal embarrassment could increase as your confidence wanes. Your performance will likely be choppy, difficult, and frustrating.

I have experienced both sides of this coin, many times.

If performance anxiety or even unsettling feelings interfere with your decision-making processes, here are three techniques to consider for managing anxiety:

  1. A powerful yet simple concept to reduce anxiety is to practice keeping your word. Many times, we promise ourselves something and then we don’t do it, which makes us feel worse. We get caught up in a cycle of rationalizing and feeling stuck. You can change this but only by promising yourself what you’re sure you will do. It is better to set and achieve a small goal than to bite off more than you can chew – and choke.
  2. Some worries have to be faced head-on, and worrying about them the right way can help eliminate secondary, unnecessary worrying. When you feel your worries are out of control, try these four steps: a) Worry through all the issues within a 10-20 minute time limit; b) Do anything that must be done at the present moment. Set a time when it’ll be necessary to think about the worry again; c) Write that time on a calendar and; d) Whenever the thought pops up again say, “Stop! I’ve already worried” and promptly redirect your thoughts to another activity – any activity.
  3. Consume mood foods. Often, anxiety prompts us to revisit our diet: to make sure we’re not drinking too much caffeine, not bingeing on too much sugar, etc. There are foods that enhance one’s mood and they include: nuts, dark green leafies, citrus, berries, and dark orange vegetables. Introducing these into your diet may be helpful.

Or you can resort to what works well for me and just breathe, deeply and repeatedly. It’s amazing how some of the most simple techniques yield the greatest benefit.

Anxiety is the normal anticipation of an event or performance where you want to succeed. How you interpret the signs of anxiety however, may affect the performance more than the original anxiety ever could have. Think about anxiety as a sign of normal preparation to succeed and a good sign of what is to come. You could then have your butterflies flying in perfect formation, marking your way to a confident and enjoyable experience.

38 thoughts on “With Success Comes Anxiety

  1. You have touched a very interesting subject, Eric. The matter goes even deeper. I know people who do not even want to succeed for fear of “public exposure.” As absurd as it sounds, fear of success may prevent people from succeeding. But just as you described, success can be stressful. Fear of failure can indeed be debilitating, but there is a smart way to handle this stress. Great post!

  2. We prepare to pass/achieve , when uncertainty and confusion gets us on edge..that is when fear comes as a sheet..it prevents us to see..the actual size of problem/issue. To over come , we need confidence and faith, in our ability to act what we have thought about earlier..it is like testing our potential and proving to our self ..so we need to practice..it makes us perfect for work related performance..real life has much more variables, hence unknown is limitless and assumptions are guesses.

  3. ah…finding the authentic voice within and speaking without fear. If we do not go within, we go without. Your post reminded me of two things; my executive speaking training and the teacher who taught us to speak from our hearts (to trust the feeling within that supports the words we are speaking); and Marianne Williamson’s quote about what our greatest fear REALLY is. I have found that relaxing into my heart as I prepare to speak before a group of any size, allows clearer access to the knowledge or experience (or both) that I seek to offer. I become a vessel for the Divine to speak through me. This practice significantly reduces the anxiety. Great post…and right on time! Thank you!

  4. I wrote “7 Keys for Effective Public Speaking” based on my experiences as a trial attorney. I concluded that post with a few amusing quotes to ponder:

    * “No one ever complains about a speech being too short.” ~ Ira Hayes

    * ”There are only two types of speakers in the world: 1. Nervous speakers and 2. Liars. ” ~ Mark Twain

    * “The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” ~ Jean Giraudoux

  5. I’ve had my fair share of these sorts of anxiety. Taking classes when I was in school, where we had to do prepared speech, impromptu talks and the like for exams prepared me quite a bit. I think the fact that I had to be confident while talking patients and their families also helped. It was part of the job, I had to.
    I still get these feelings when I have to present to an audience. I don’t put too much of thought into it now…I know it’s there, I know it’ll be fine and then I just work through it….

    I also remember the time when I went on stage to sing. The rush I got after that performance…from the nervousness prior to and during…making it through the routine….it was like a “high”! Hehe

      • Oh…not for public speaking BUT for daily life…yup , the opening quote is very apt. There’s another quote about how much of the things we worry about doesn’t actually happen…it’s a lot better now. I tell my mind NO and wagging my index finger at it…it has helped some 🙂

  6. I find that being well-prepared and forcing myself to be in front of people as much as possible helps a lot. I have gone through terrible bouts of anxiety in the past, but I was reaching a point in my life in which a career and education were forcing me into more and more speaking situations. After presenting at conferences and lecturing in college courses, I still get a feeling of impending doom at the thought of speaking. I just really hate being the focus of a live audience.

    • Noony, one of my mentors would suggest reconsidering your phrase “forcing myself…” to something along the lines of “…creating opportunities for valuable stage time…” Forcing doesn’t always connote fun or enjoyment and creating ways in which to manage anxiety ought to be fun (or less stress inducing). Yes/no?

      What are you going to do to eliminate the “hate?” 🙂

      • Not sure if “forcing” is the right word, but it’s rare that I enjoy it. There are times, when I am very enthusiastic about my topic, that I do feel exhilarated after speaking. I try to remind myself that I do have something to contribute, and that helps too. Just have to keep at it, I suppose. 🙂

  7. I must tell you a cute story Eric.
    When I was in College at the age of 40, I had to take Speech or not graduate!
    The very thought of it gave me chills of terror.
    On my final and longest one, when I had finished, the teacher leaned in to say to me,
    ” I gave you an A on this speech and an A in the class, but may I suggest that in the future, you release the desk.”
    Confused, I looked down at my hands which had been behind me, gripping the desk that I had stood in front of while I was speaking.
    My fingers were white and colorless, as all of the blood had been drained out of them by my tight grip on the desk~

    • I love this story. It happens so frequently. I’d need more fingers and toes to count the number of times I’ve seen and coached those white-knuckled people. 🙂 What’s wonderful is that so many learn how to manage their nerves and complete the task or effort at hand. Thanks for sharing this, Donna.

  8. Great post Eric. I used to be terribly afraid to speak to a crowd and still get nervous, but have gotten better at breathing and relaxing into my fear. I like your suggestions to keep our word and allow the fear, for a few minutes. Maybe I’ll have a conversation with my fear!

  9. Terrific as always, Eric. My mother was an opera singer. She always said, if nerves begin to control your breathing, push your knees back. That way you “command your ground”. I’ve never read it, but always done it. And for me it seems to work! Thanks for this post. You seem to answer my questions before I get to ask them!

    • Thanks for sharing this, Bruce. Advocating what works for you may well help others. I love the phrase “command your ground.” It’s makes for a strengthened presence. Glad that I’ve been able to anticipate your questions. 🙂

  10. Doesn’t the story go that people would rather be in the casket than delivering the eulogy? Something about being able to speak in public that most people don’t get into. As a fellow communicator, I know what you mean that even though comfortable with it, there are still some of those anxious thoughts that fly around before it. On a separate note, my favorite adage for worry in general is: Worry is a down payment on a problem you may never have 🙂

  11. Not a truer statement than your first quote: “Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.” In public speaking, every day work, family, money…anything where you want to perform well, the mind cannot help but overact.

    You have great advice, and good to review this advice often 🙂 Cheers!

    • Performance anxiety, unless it is grounded in a traumatic experience, rarely serves any useful purpose. It is one of those spaces to which we conveniently default. I’ve more than once referred to anxiety as “Amygdala hijackings” Thanks for stopping by and for your thoughtful comment, Randall.

    • Several have commented on the opening quote. To your comment, Aussa, it is so true! Kudos on getting into a (my word) “zone” once you have begun speaking. Comfort and confidence *are* significant contributing factors!

  12. Great post, Eric. Consume mood foods? Does that truly help? Then I need it!
    Your blog is very worthwhile, Eric – truly quality material. I’d love to see one of your talks in public.

    • According to one source unearthed in my research, mood foods not only exist but work. Of course, there are likely an equal number of sources and/or studies that would debunk that opinion. In the end, I believe most of us do our own investigating and choose to implement/use what we find works best for ourselves and our situations – not unlike some of the information I share in this blog. 🙂 Appreciate your thoughtful comments, N.

  13. I try not to eat much 1 hr. before delivering a presentation or instructing a class.

    Simple deep breathing (eyes closed) and meditation is helpful. Getting a good night’s sleep is invaluable.

  14. Hi Eric,

    Great read!

    I have dramatically changed my lifestyle, and i am braking through the barriers to success, but anxiety does get the best of me sometimes, but in a different way.

    When it first started for me, i didn’t understand it , and it escalated into a panic attack and a very scary situation, now, sometimes when i get anxiety, it can tricker fear and that usually leads onto panic attacks and worry that there is something physically wrong with me, because some of the symptoms can really been scary. The two years since changing my lifestyle, i think i have had every anxiety symptom there is.

    Is there anyone else who has had similar struggles, while trying to break free to success?

    Nick

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