02 May Managing Your Performance Anxiety

You’re about to take the stage for an important audition. You’ve practiced diligently and know you lines, your steps or the music forwards and backwards. You’re fired up and ready to go. All of a sudden your legs feel like rubber, your mouth has gone completely dry, your heart is about to beat out of your chest. You can barely breathe. You feel like you might faint if you take another step and your mind has gone completely blank.

Perhaps this has happened before; maybe it’s the first time you’ve ever had this awful experience. Whichever it is, you’re in good company. Laurence Olivier, Carly Simon, Helen Mirren, Adele, Pablo Casals, Vladimir Horowitz, Scarlett Johansson, Hugh Grant, Renee Fleming and Jason Alexander are just a few of the many performers who have suffered from stage fright. In its most extreme manifestations, stage fright (also called performance anxiety) is considered a type of Social Anxiety Disorder.

Some folks combat their social anxiety by avoiding the kinds of situations that provoke these responses. But if you’re a performer, avoiding is not an option; you’ve chosen an endeavor that requires you to put yourself in emotional harm’s way every time you perform. Auditions are especially challenging, because they create a perfect storm of conditions guaranteed to induce anxiety. At an audition you are, in fact, being closely observed and judged. Every time you do it, you are exposing yourself to every kind of criticism you can imagine.

Everyone feels some anxiety about standing up in front of strangers and performing or giving a presentation. To do so without any trepidation would be abnormal. In fact, most performing artists say that some degree of nervousness fuels their performance; the rush of adrenaline just before the downbeat can be energizing. But what if your anxiety is so overwhelming that it prevents you from feeling safe or calm enough to act, dance, play or sing? If your level of anxiety engulfs you so much that you shut down or lose sensory motor control, that’s when you know there’s a problem.
Overcoming stage fright can be challenging and confusing. There are so many “cures” out there – just ask any of your peers and you’ll get an earful. I believe that there are essentially three components to the solution: acceptance, preparation and confidence. Each element is multi-faceted, comprised of cognitive, behavioral and emotional aspects. Your treatment, if you need one, will be unique to you, because each of us has distinct strengths and opportunities for growth in our habits and psychological makeup.

Acceptance

One of the biggest mistakes performers make is to try to trick themselves into not being anxious about an audition or a show. Stage fright doesn’t originate in the conscious mind and it can’t be ‘turned off’ just by thinking positive thoughts or trying to talk yourself out of it. You have to learn how to work with your anxiety. The more you try to resist it or pretend it’s not there, the more likely it will get in your way. Carl Jung wisely wrote, “What we resist, persists.” Or, if you prefer the wisdom of the Borg, “Resistance is futile.” I would go so far as to say that you need to make friends with your performance anxiety. When you’re able to embrace your fears they will begin to lose their ability to overwhelm you.

When performance anxiety kicks in, the brain secretes the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These are the chemicals that initiate the well-known “fight or flight” responses. The release of these hormones causes various physical reactions, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, fast and shallow breathing, sweating, and increased muscle tension. That’s great if you’re in the jungle being chased by a saber-toothed tiger, but not so helpful if you’re trying to get through your concerto. There’s another effect that’s less known but equally crucial to understand: when the stress hormones are released, the hindbrain takes over primary control and ‘short circuits’ the frontal cortex. In plain English, this means that you lose your ability to think clearly because the part of your brain that’s responsible for rational thought is essentially knocked offline when the anxiety hijacks your brain and body.

The lesson here is that you have to accept the fact that you will be anxious in certain performance situations and that the best way to handle it is to learn how to channel all that primal energy into your art.

Preparation

Of course you have to know your material – the notes, rhythms, words, blocking or choreography. But when it comes to managing performance anxiety, not all forms of practice are equally effective.  A lot of practice and rehearsal tends to focus on memorization, overcoming technical problems and repetition. All of these activities use the power of your left brain; they require a sharp, conscious focus on planning, analytical thinking, details and critical assessment (by yourself, your teacher, coach, etc.). Conversely, the right brain is the seat of creativity, inspiration, emotions and imagery – all the things that move performances from the mundane to the inspired. As artists, we need both hemispheres to work in tandem.

Unfortunately, when stage fright strikes and we’re not properly prepared to handle it, the emotional energy is there, but our ability to focus on what we’ve practiced goes out the window as soon as the frontal cortex flips out. We lose the ability to control our breathing and the body suddenly seems to have a mind of its own. So there’s got to be more to preparation than rehearsing what I call the contents of the performance. We also need to do our preparation for the context of a performance.

Some of this will be old hat for you. You have to prepare your body by maintaining your physical fitness, stamina and flexibility. You also need to practice some stress management techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, body scanning, yoga or tai chi. You can’t just do some deep breathing right before a stressful event and expect to be able to manage the effects of adrenaline coursing through your system. These techniques have to become as natural as, well, breathing. Limiting your intake of caffeine, alcohol and refined sugar is helpful too. Preparing your mind is equally important. Various forms of meditation, guided visualization and laughter are all good ways to decrease stress and increase you ability to stay grounded in the present.

But what do I mean by preparing for the context? When you’re in the rehearsal hall or practice room you’re generally taken up with the mechanics or content of whatever you’re trying to learn. As noted above, this is largely a left brain activity. To truly prepare for the context of a performance you must also find ways to, as they say, raise the stakes – even if you’re alone in a practice room. You want to call upon the resources of the right brain to simulate the performance experience as much as you can. You can do this in two ways: First, when you feel that you’ve mastered the mechanics of the piece you’re practicing, do it full bore, as if it was a real performance. Don’t mark, don’t hold back – go for it! If you want to put yourself on the spot, use this second idea: play your audition for other people and/or record your performance. It’s amazing what kind of pressure that will produce even if you know you’re the only person who will ever see or hear the recording. Preparing both the content and the context will help you channel the hormone-induced energy that will arise during a real audition or performance.

Confidence

Confidence is the feeling of self-assurance that comes from your appreciation of your own abilities and qualities. It is the result of your conscious, steadfast practice of acceptance and preparation. It is a deep inner knowing that can reduce your emotional and physical responses to the situations that cause performance anxiety. Confidence is not just an idea; it is a state of being that permeates your whole self – body, mind and spirit.

Confidence is also the prerequisite for resilience, a quality every performer needs to have. Why? Because there are times when you will fail. You will blow that audition; you will forget a phrase, a step or a lyric. It’s not a question of if you will fail, but when. This will happen because you’re human and no earthly being can perform perfectly all the time. But when you’ve developed your confidence, you will know, with great assurance, that you will bounce back and get ‘em next time.

Conclusion

Acceptance, preparation and confidence make up the three-part antidote to stage fright. Will developing these practices guarantee that you will never experience performance anxiety again? Sadly, no. Human beings are complicated creatures. Just as you will never be able to perform perfectly, you will not be able to eliminate your anxiety completely. What we’re talking about is managing your stage fright. How did you get so good at singing, dancing, acting or playing your instrument? You learned and practiced the techniques of your art over a long period of time. The same strategy will work for keeping your anxiety in check.

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