Brain and Body

Here’s a New Way to Overcome Performance Anxiety, According to Neuroscience

February 5, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

hand clutching a microphone.

Say goodbye to those embarrassing moments!

Whether you’ve been practicing for a piano recital for weeks or rehearsing a speech for your debate class over and over, most of us have experienced that brutal moment when you get up in front of an audience and your mind goes blank. You royally mess up, and there’s no denying that the embarrassment stings.

A new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, explored what actually goes on in the brain during stage fright, and the researchers have new insight on how to overcome those performance anxiety jitters.

During the research, the scientists found that when the brain region that notices others judging is activated, another region that controls fine sensorimotor skills, called the inferior parietal cortex, shuts down.

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"It's true that it's all in your head," said study senior author Neil Harrison, a professor of neuropsychiatry at the University of Sussex

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the brain activity of 21 volunteers as they performed a task that challenged them to exert a precise amount of force when gripping an object. During the task, the volunteers also had to watch footage of two people who either appeared to be evaluating the participant or evaluating someone else.

Unsurprisingly, the participants felt more anxious when they thought they were being watched and evaluated by others. They gripped the object harder without even realizing it, according to the researchers.

The brain scans showed that the posterior superior temporal sulcus — the area of the brain that registers other people’s facial expressions and movements — was more active when the participants felt like others were watching them. Interestingly, in the same instances, the researchers saw that the region that controls fine sensorimotor skills (inferior parietal cortex) became deactivated.

Normally, these two regions interact in a process that enables people to pick up on subtle hints about what other people are thinking based on their facial expressions, the researchers say. This has an effect on how people will handle performance anxiety — if they perceive their audience as “well-wishers,” then they generally perform well.

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However, if they pick up on any negative cues from the observers, the connection between these two regions becomes impaired and can cause them to choke up during their performance.

This effect on the inferior parietal cortex doesn’t only occur with large audiences. The mere feeling of being watched and judged can give rise to the type of anxiety that impairs motor performance, according to the researchers.

Harrison also said that it’s possible these same pathways are similarly involved when an individual has a fear of public speaking, since the vocal chords are just another muscle. (Suddenly all of my awkward college presentations make sense…)

So how do we overcome this crippling performance anxiety? Harrison says that practicing in front of a supportive audience, even just family and close friends, could strengthen the connections in the brain. By performing and receiving positive feedback, the researchers think this might “re-train” the neural network, and they plan to look into that possibility next.

The researchers also say to imagine your performance with a positive outcome, like the sound of the audience cheering, instead of focusing on the possibility of a complete and utter fail. This way of thinking could prove helpful in reducing the anxiety that then goes on to contribute to the slip-ups during a performance.

Getting up in front of an audience is never easy, but hopefully these neuroscience pointers help take the edge off!

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