FEAR IS GOOD; in emergencies, it enables us to fight or flee. But often we get scared at the wrong time—when we step onto the field for a big soccer game or up to the microphone at a contentious town meeting. Professional athletes and actors say some nervousness helps them concentrate better. But when performance anxiety is too powerful, it undermines our efforts: a player's legs become wobbly, a violinist cannot find the correct notes, a manager in a meeting forgets all the talking points. Survival may not hang in the balance, but social, professional or financial success can seem to be in grave danger.
The human anxiety reaction begins almost automatically and includes clear physiological symptoms: a racing heart, sweating, stomach pains, even diarrhea. Some people have trouble breathing or feel faint. Thus alarmed, victims may withdraw into themselves or shock others around them with aggressive outbursts. If the need to perform is a regular requirement, they may suffer from nightmares or fall into depression. All these symptoms eat away at the very resources needed to rise to the occasion: steady hands, clear memory and a cool head. Studies reveal that anxiety-plagued executives are less able to apply logical intelligence on standard tests than calmer colleagues.