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6 Ways Mindfulness Can Enhance Performance

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Wed Nov 30 2016

6 Ways Mindfulness Can Enhance Performance
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Thirteen years ago, in my former career as a physical therapist, I landed my dream job. I was hired at a highly regarded clinic, with the opportunity for mentorship from a highly respected professional in the field. I had four years of experience at the time, and I knew this opportunity could significantly advance my career.

I was ecstatic about the job. Until I actually started it. Then I lived in despair almost every day for three months.

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I wanted to do a good job so badly that I put an unreasonable amount of pressure on myself. I was afraid of looking stupid in front of my new mentor, but my fear made it nearly impossible for me to demonstrate the knowledge I did have. I stammered when I explained simple concepts to clients and couldn’t seem to muster up any of the confidence I’d had before I started the job.

I knew I had to make some big changes when one of the action items on my 90-day review was, “Stop saying ‘um’ so much.” (Ouch.) I had a bad case of performance anxiety that was interfering with my career growth, and I needed to learn how to get over it.

Performance anxiety is a concept that is often associated with stage professionals like actors and musicians, but it also affects professionals in more traditional roles. Giving a presentation, working with a new client, or discussing a promotion with your boss are all situations that may trigger fears that can sabotage your chance of success.

The challenge is that when you are nervous, you start thinking about what you don’t want to happen. It’s like mental rubbernecking—you know you shouldn’t keep thinking about your worst-case scenario outcome, but you just can’t seem to stop. This negative visualization activates the fear response, also called your fight or flight response, where your brain shifts into survival mode, making it difficult for you to access your higher-level brain functions, like critical reasoning and creativity.

You might think you have to be fearless to perform at your best, but that’s not true. Research on brain function has found evidence that the use of mindfulness techniques can help you exert positive control to achieve the outcome you want.

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Here’s the mindfulness process I use with my clients to help them create their ideal outcome. 

Acknowledge the Doubts and Fears That Come Up When You Think About the Situation

This first step may seem counterintuitive. I used to think that if I acknowledged my feelings, I’d just end up feeling more nervous, but the opposite is true.

When you don’t acknowledge how you are feeling, rather than going away, those emotions stay stuck inside of you, like a forgotten piece of luggage in your hall closet. Approach this step with curiosity, and just note what is there. Avoid the temptation to judge yourself. 

Identify the Physical Sensations You Feel When You Think About the Situation

Scan your body and look for any areas of tightness, heaviness, or pain that you have in your body. Pay particular attention to the sensations you have in your throat, chest, rib cage and solar plexus area, and gut.

This helps in two ways. First, if your mind goes blank when you are afraid, your physical sensations can give you clues to your underlying emotions. Second, doing a body scan brings you back into the present moment, which helps you shift out of the future-based fearful thoughts that typically trigger the fight or flight response in your brain. 

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Identify How You Want to Feel in This Situation

This step follows a principle I learned from mountain biking: Look where you want to go, don’t look where you don’t want to go. If you look into a ditch while riding, you will inadvertently steer your bike into it. (Trust me on this.)

A 2014 study on performance anxiety researched the effects of self-talk on performance for people singing karaoke. The researchers found that when participants said “I am excited” rather than “I am anxious,” their performance (and enjoyment of their performance) improved. 

Get Clear on Your Best Possible Outcome

This may seem obvious, but pick an outcome that really excites you. Often when you are nervous, it’s hard to imagine things going really well, so you may pick an outcome that feels doable rather than really exciting. It’s the energy of connecting to both how you want to feel and what you want to happen that’s going to help you stop being nervous. 

Note the Physical Sensations You Have When You Think About the Outcome

Connecting with the physical sensations you have in your body when you think of your desired outcome is the secret sauce of this process. The physical feelings that are associated with your desired outcome are going to be the magnet that helps you create that result for yourself.  

Pick One Word (or Short Phrase) That Reminds You of the Feeling Associated With Your Ideal Outcome

This word will help bring to mind how you want to feel when you notice yourself getting nervous again. This word will keep you anchored to the positive outcome that you want.

Use of this six-step mindfulness technique will reduce your stress and help position you for success when opportunities for growth come along.

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