Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety is fear about one’s ability to competently perform a specific task. People experiencing performance anxiety may be concerned about public humiliation, being perceived as silly, or forgetting an important component of the task. While performance anxiety can occur with any task, it is most common with public tasks and sexual performance.

What Causes Performance Anxiety
Many people experience anxiety before public performances, and many people experience moments of self-doubt with regard to their ability to competently complete tasks. This anxiety activates the body’s fight or flight response and can cause shaking, elevated blood pressure, and a compelling desire to avoid the anxiety-inducing situation. Performance anxiety is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. The person’s anxiety about performance can interfere with his or her ability to competently complete the task. A singer’s voice might shake, a musician might miss a few notes, and a public speaker might forget his or her outline. These mistakes then serve as evidence that the performance anxiety was warranted and can increase the likelihood of future performance anxiety.

Sexual Performance Anxiety

Sexual performance anxiety is especially likely to be caused by past sexual failures and can create a self-perpetuating cycle. While both men and women can suffer from performance anxiety, men are especially susceptible to feelings of inadequacy when they cannot maintain erections. Loss of erection draws attention to the perceived failure and decreases the likelihood of regaining it. Because there is such a strong social stigma attached to sexual difficulties, even talking about performance anxiety can worsen the problem for some people.

Prevention for Performance Anxiety
Relaxation techniques can be helpful for people immediately before performances to reduce anxiety. Deep-breathing, meditation, and mental preparation strategies are all useful. For people experiencing chronic performance anxiety, therapy can help. Therapists may discuss the underlying fears associated with performance, help to reframe a person’s self-defeating thoughts, and/or normalize the anxiety experience.

Therapy for sexual performance anxiety is very similar to treatment for other forms of performance anxiety. However, it often requires the participation of both members of a couple and may focus on creating a low-stress, low-pressure sexual environment as well as reframing expectations or assumptions regarding sexual success/failure.


  1. American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
  2. Fundukian, L. J., & Wilson, J. (2008). The Gale encyclopedia of mental health. Detroit, MI: Thomson Gale.

Last Updated: 08-17-2015

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