The Research Behind How Anxiety Affects Your Performance

Our Expectations Determine What Happens

The anxiety performance relationship is perhaps the most studied area is sport psychology, but also probably the most misunderstood. The theories, hypotheses, and models created to discuss stress, anxiety, and arousal were initially naïve and much of the terminology got clumped together unnecessarily. Many assume that arousal, anxiety, activation, and stress are the same. They are related, but they’re not interchangeable. There are individual differences, how we appraise a situation, how we interpret the challenges, our investment, our effort, and how we focus on the demands at hand. To help athletes or individuals cope with the these constructs, they need to be aware of what they’re experiencing to implement their resources more effectively.

Arousal is the general state of activation ranging on a continuum from deep sleep to extreme excitement or agitation for example. It is a system activation and it is not necessarily negatively valanced. Although, these constructs are often associated together, you can be anxious and not necessarily show arousal. Anxiety is a negative affective experiential state characterized by apprehension. The two were treated similarly early on because of how they were operationalized with behavior measures. There is a correlational relationship, but they are different. This caused some original confusion, which probably lead to misunderstandings by researchers and practitioners interpreting the literature. It was originally thought that most anxiety hurt performance. Although now, it is important to remember how one interprets anxiety and perceives their coping ability with anxiety determines how it affects an individual.  It does not have to be destructive at all times. Anxiety should be an affect, and sometimes it is referred to as a cognition, which can cause confusion.

Another contributor to misunderstandings in the terminology is facilitative and debilitative anxiety. Debilitative and facilitative anxiety are not anxiety states. These terms are not types of anxiety at all; rather they are people’s interpretations. This is one’s view of anxiety as being helpful or harmful. For example, I feel like this…., and the person rates his or her expectation of the event and how it will help or harm the performance. These terms are expectations, not a special type of anxiety. It also does not mean the expectation is necessarily right, but it’s how the person perceives the performance. How much anxiety are they feeling? Do they think it’s good or bad for the performance? What is the intensity level? The important aspect is how the person interprets the expectation as to whether it will help or harm the performance, and then a sport psychology consultant can teach them coping skills to address the event.

As far as performance ambiguities go, there have been misunderstandings there too. Anxiety can help, hinder, or have no causal impact on performance. There are individual differences, of course, that determine how much or the magnitude of the effect, but different theories and models have been presented to show meaningful patterns that occur with anxiety and performance. Now scientists have shown that it depends on how anxiety is interpreted, the value of the situation, the intensity, and expectation that determine performance.

The inverted U hypothesis is referred to frequently when looking at anxiety effects on performance. This states that a little anxiety is good. The event needs to matter to the person. If the event did not hold any value or relevance then the performer might not experience any anxiety and therefore performance would not be optimal. If anxiety is too high it can undermine performance. This can cause too many physiological and psychological responses to take over. Therefore, somewhere in the middle is where a person would function optimally, which would be referred to as “Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning”. Performance quality would be at its highest here. However, this does depend on the task at hand and how one copes with anxiety to determine where one would fall on the curve to determine their IZOF. For example, a kicker may not need to be “hyped up” before a valuable field goal, but a linebacker might want serious adrenaline pumping before he runs on the field.

If someone views the relationship between anxiety and performance as facilitative or helpful then this can lead to stronger performances. Anxiety can then enhance performance, if the person knows how to apply it. However, if a person lets anxiety take over and does not control the effect, it can cause muscle tension, perceptual narrowing, and cause a person to think or process his or her performance too much. Anxiety can then undermine performance if a person does not learn how to react effectively. It is best for the individual to utilize his or her zone of optimal functioning and personal appraisal of anxiety for success. Although, keep in mind a limitation to the inverted U, which is the lack of sensitivity to the wide fluctuations in anxiety that can occur within and between individuals and to the ways in which they relate to performance. Zones can be specific to the task and environmental characteristics as well. It’s crucial to become aware of your body and what it’s telling you. When you’re familiar with how you react in various situations, you can start to incorporate techniques to better your performance and learn how to channel your inner confidence.