Performance anxiety is a common experience, particularly for musicians and athletes. Anxiety about performing may also relate to public speaking or simply being put on the spot. When performance anxiety is significant, it may interfere with daily life, career plans, and attaining life goals. One way that performance anxiety can be alleviated is through promotion of “flow state.”
Understanding Flow State
Flow state as a term was first coined by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi in the 1890s, when he noticed that artists lost themselves in their work. Flow might also be referred to as “being in the zone.” If you’ve ever found yourself totally absorbed in an activity, to the point that you did not notice time passing, it’s possible you were experiencing flow state.
The experience generally involves intense concentration in the present moment, a distorted sense of time, and feeling as though an activity is intrinsically rewarding—in other words, you are not caught up in thinking about the outcome.
What Influences Flow
Numerous factors influence how well you transition into flow, or whether instead, you experience performance anxiety. Confidence has been shown to relate positively to flow, while anxiety has been show to relate negatively to flow. In general, when flow is highest, performance anxiety tends to be lowest.
In addition, we know that level of skill is important for entering flow state. Without the necessary skill and practice, a task will feel too difficult for you to enter flow state. Once a task feels too difficult, you may also fall into self-criticism, which can also exacerbate performance anxiety.
What Happens in the Brain During Flow
You might wonder exactly what is happening when you enter flow state. In essence, your prefrontal cortex shuts down. This area of your brain controls your sense of self, perception of time, and complex thought. When this part of your brain goes silent, your brain waves slow down and you might even feel like an observer watching yourself. Indeed, this state is at the root of practices such as Zen Buddhism.
Promoting Flow State and Reducing Performance Anxiety
While it’s helpful to know about flow state, it’s even more helpful to know how to induce it to reduce performance anxiety. In order to enter flow state, you must feel relaxed and focused. Your goal then, is to create performance conditions that foster the flow state.
- Balance between skill and challenge. One of the most important ways to do this is to ensure that in any performance situation, there is an appropriate balance between skill and challenge. In other words, you need to be in a situation in which you can succeed. And, you need to practice sufficiently to develop needed skills.
- Stay in the present. Your focus should be on the present rather than the future, to enter flow state. Don’t think about the outcome of what you are doing. Instead, focus intently on your actions in the moment. By the same token, don’t focus on the audience if you want to enter flow state.
- Positive self-talk. While it may sound simple, saying uplifting things to yourself can help to boost your ability to enter flow state. Tell yourself, “I can do this” or “I am capable.” Go one step further an visualize yourself doing well.
- Work out before a performance. Do some exercise that encourages flow state such as low intensity jogging. This will help you to enter flow state.
- Practice mindfulness. Spend a set period such as 10 minutes focusing on your breath. As your mind generates various thoughts, acknowledge them but always return to focusing on your breath. By practicing in this way, you are training your brain pathways to enter flow state.
- Develop a pre-performance routine. Choose a focal point, use positive self-talk, breathe deeply, and scan and release tension from your body. Take it one step further and imagine any nervous energy being channeled out of your core toward your audience.
Recognizing Flow State
You will know you’ve entered flow state when your self-consciousness is reduced. Fear tends to feed pressure, and pressure to do well may cause you to crumble. Pay attention to situations in which you naturally have no fear or feel no pressure to do well. When you don’t feel you are in danger, it will be easier to relax and enter flow state. Try to translate that feeling into all areas of your life. In essence, when you stop trying to impress everyone, and focus on the music, the shot, or the message of your speech—that’s when the magic begins and the anxiety fades away.
Fullagar CJ, Knight PA, Sovern HS. Challenge/Skill Balance, Flow, and Performance Anxiety. Applied Psychol. 2012;62(2):236-259.