How to Change Your Hardwired Stress Response to Reduce Performance Anxiety

Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT tapping) can help you modify the stress response.

By Christine McDevitt, MS, OTR/L

Imagine you’ve been asked to give an in-person presentation to a group of two hundred strangers. How does your body react to that scenario? What thoughts run through your mind?

Some people would feel excited. Others might feel anxious, nauseous, or paralyzed with fear.

A strand of DNA. The stress response is hardwired in us.
Photo by ANIRUDH on Unsplash

We all have the same biological mechanism for dealing with circumstances that lack certainty or are unfamiliar to us. This mechanism is called the stress response, also known as the fight or flight response.

The stress response is the process in the brain that detects danger and prepares the body to deal with the perceived threat at hand. The brains of both animals and humans are hardwired with this system; it’s essential to survival.

Does having a hardwired response mean you can’t change the way you tend to react in certain situations? Not necessarily. Let’s look at how this works.

Circumstances in and of themselves don’t trigger the stress response.

Your brain receives information from your sense organs (i.e., eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin). In the example above, the sensory information would include the tone of the person’s voice asking you to give the presentation as well as the sound of the words you heard.

Those images, sounds, smells, tastes, and body sensations are all emotionally neutral before they get to your brain. Your sense organs are simply giving the brain details about what is happening in the outside environment.

Those bits of information travel to two structures in the brain called the hippocampus and the amygdala. These structures determine if the information received poses a potential threat to your survival.

How your brain decides what is a threat and what isn’t

The hippocampus compares incoming sensory information with sensory information from your past experiences. It’s involved with the recall of memories, formation of new memories, and learning.

The amygdala attaches emotional meaning to memories and interprets whether incoming sensory information should be treated as threatening.

The perception of stress or threat occurs if the hippocampus and amygdala find similarities between the incoming sensory information and information from past experiences that was interpreted as potentially dangerous.

The brain’s “threat tag” can affect you for years.

Here is a simplified example. Let’s say you gave a speech in elementary school, and your classmates made fun of you while you were speaking. Even if it’s been thirty years and you don’t consciously remember the incident, your brain retained all the sensory information from that event.

Your brain also registered the memory of any emotional upset you felt. It’s possible, then, that your brain linked one or more of the sensory pieces of the incident (e.g., seeing an audience from the stage) as threatening and filed it away as such.

If this is the case, then the thought of being in that position again could cause your amygdala – which acts like an alarm for your body – to send a warning to prepare the body to respond to the threat. This alarm will begin a cascade of biochemical reactions that result in a physical experience of stress.

The intensity of that physical experience will depend on how much danger your brain thinks you’re in now. Depending on the meaning your brain attached to the incident at the time it occurred, your reactions may be mild (e.g., faster heartbeat, slight muscle tension, a feeling of being on alert) or more extreme (e.g., shortness of breath, unable to focus, feeling sick to your stomach).

On the other hand, if your speech was well received or increased your popularity, thinking about public speaking may not trigger the stress response at all. In this case, your brain may have linked the sensory information from that earlier life event to a positive emotional feeling, so there is no need for the amygdala to sound the alarm.

You can change the way your brain has interpreted past information.

A healthy brain continually updates the information it receives and stores.

Outline of two heads facing each other. One has a gray brain. The other has a multicolored brain. The stress response affects how events are interpreted.
Image by Elisa from Pixabay

However, the brain tends to have a stronger hold on information associated with strong emotional responses. From a biological perspective, this tendency helps keep you away from things that cause you pain and that may be a potential threat to your survival.

While this strategy is useful, it can cause problems, especially if you find yourself reacting to certain circumstances in ways that affect your performance or just don’t feel good to you. However, there are ways to change unhelpful associations in the brain.

Research has shown that a process called clinical Emotional Freedom Techniques (also known as EFT tapping) can help alter the connections your brain has made between specific memories and specific negative emotions.

When EFT is used properly, you can “unhook” the memory of a negative emotion from the sensory pieces of the memory. This process doesn’t erase the memory. Instead, it helps alter your perception of those sensory pieces so your brain no longer continues to interpret them as threatening. A new interpretation can affect whether your brain will trigger the stress response under similar conditions in the future.

So, while you can’t eliminate the stress response altogether, it is possible to modify your default reaction to specific situations so you can minimize anxiety, focus, and perform your best.

If you’re curious about using EFT to help manage your stress response with performance anxiety, schedule a free consultation today.