From the Journals

Performance anxiety highly common among surgeons



Most surgeons report being affected by performance anxiety in relation to their work, with the anxiety frequently having a negative effect on well-being, a new study of surgeons in the United Kingdom shows.

“Performance anxiety or stage fright is a widely recognized problem in music and sports, and there are many similarities between these arenas and the operating theater,” first author Robert Miller, MRCS, of the Surgical Psychology and Performance Group and the department of plastic and reconstructive surgery at St. George’s Hospital NHS Trust, London, said in an interview. “We were aware of it anecdotally in a surgical context, but for one reason or another, perhaps professional pride and fear of negative perception, this is rarely openly discussed amongst surgeons.”

In the cross-sectional study, published in Annals of Surgery, Dr. Miller and colleagues surveyed surgeons in all specialties working in the United Kingdom who had at least 1 year of postgraduate surgical training.

Of a total of 631 responses received, 523 (83%) were included in the analysis. The median age of those who responded was 41.2 years, and the mean duration of surgical experience was 15.3 years (range, 1-52 years). Among them, 62% were men, and 52% were of consultant/attending grade.

All of the respondents – 100% – said they believed that performance anxiety affected surgeons, 87% reported having experienced it themselves, and 65% said they felt that performance anxiety had an effect on their surgical performance.

Both male and female surgeons who reported experiencing performance anxiety had significantly worse mental well-being, as assessed using the Short Warwick Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale, compared with those who did not have performance anxiety (P < .0001 for men and P < .001 for women).

Overall, however, male surgeons had significantly better mental well-being, compared with female surgeons (P = .003), yet both genders had significantly lower mental well-being scores compared with U.K. population norms (P = .0019 for men and P = .0001 for women).

The gender differences are “clearly an important topic, which is likely multifactorial,” Dr. Miller told this news organization. “The gender well-being gap requires more in-depth research, and qualitative work involving female surgeons is critical.”

Surgical perfectionism was significantly more common among respondents who did have performance anxiety in comparison with those who did not (P < .0001).

“Although perfectionism may be a beneficial trait in surgery, our findings from hierarchical multiple regression analysis also indicate that perfectionism, [as well as] sex and experience, may drive surgical performance anxiety and help predict those experiencing [the anxiety],” the authors noted.

Performing in presence of colleagues a key trigger

By far, the leading trigger that was identified as prompting surgeon performance anxiety was the presence – and scrutiny – of colleagues within the parent specialty. This was reported by 151 respondents. Other triggers were having to perform on highly complex or high-risk cases (66 responses) and a lack of experience (30 responses).

Next to planning and preparation, opening up and talking about the anxiety and shedding light on the issue was seen as a leading strategy to help with the problem, but very few respondents reported openly sharing their struggles. Only 9% reported that they had shared it openly; 27% said they had confided in someone, and 47% did not respond to the question.

“I wish we talked about it more and shared our insecurities,” one respondent lamented. “Most of my colleagues pretend they are living gods.”

Only about 45% of respondents reported a specific technique for overcoming their anxiety. In addition to being open about the problem, other techniques included self-care, such as exercise; and distraction outside of work to get perspective; relaxation techniques such as deep or controlled breathing; music; mindfulness; and positive self-statements.

About 9% said they had received psychological counseling for performance anxiety, and only 3% reported using medication for the problem.


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