We have all felt stress before an exam or an important meeting at work. Stress is a normal reaction of the human body. However, when success takes on too much importance and leads to excessive stress causing pain in an individual, it is no longer a normal situation. It then becomes a question of performance anxiety.
Often confused, stress and anxiety are two concepts that do not refer to the same thing. To understand if a young person is suffering from performance anxiety, it is first necessary to fully comprehend this difference.
«Stress occurs when a person faces a threath in the here and now that is sensed by the brain. When the threat is detected by the brain, it produces stress hormones that will fight or flee the menace. Anxiety is the anticipation of an imagined threat. However, the brain reacts in the same way to a real or imagined threat by producing stress hormones. This explains why anxious people tend to produce a lot of these hormones, as they constantly anticipate imaginary dangers.» – Sonia Lupien, director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress at the University Institute of Mental Health in Montreal.
For Nancy Dubois, a guidance counsellor and psychotherapist at the Centre de pédopsychiatrie CIUSSS-CN for the past 24 years, «performance anxiety in young people is a symptom of an often diffuse identity. In fact, success-at-all-costs, excellence in school results and good standing in an activity or sport represent for them intrinsic value markers. It is therefore not surprising to see these young people react when professionals or those around them invite them to review their criteria. The whole ego is then threatened, and this may explain, in part, their ambivalence to comply with this new way of considering themselves. When young people take a step back, they recognize that they are asking a lot of themselves. On the other hand, the idea of looking at themselves in a new light often raises an internal storm that tends to cripple them and keep them in their modus operandi. It is through the collaborative work between the youth, family and health care professionnal that small steps are taken on the road to change.»
It should also be pointed out that young people faced with performance issues also tend to suppress all notions of pleasure, which adds to the burden of their daily lives. In their minds, reintroducing this theme forces them to abandon their «performance duties», a step that is often difficult to take. The importance of being well accompanied in this process is unavoidable.
It is possible for parents and friends to support the young person caught in this dilemma by encouraging fun activities, offering a sympathetic ear and avoiding reinforcing the idea that success is the only investment in life.
«And a little tip: when a young person tells you about their performance and seems to be looking to you for feedback (because they are looking for validation of their own worth in your eyes), hold back on your usual comments such as «that’s good», «you’re really good at that», etc., and instead ask them the following question: «what do you think of this result? This type of intervention will force the young person to look at himself. He will learn, quietly, to redefine the boundaries of his identity. And who knows, this could lead to a very interesting exchange with them,» says Nancy Dubois.
If your child or a young person around you suffers from performance anxiety, it is important to take action and use the resources available. To learn more about the CERVO Foundation, click here.