I frequently ask performing artists at all levels this very important question: “Where in your career or training have you had an in-depth explanation of the causes of and cures for stage fright?” What is your response? All too frequently I hear something like “nowhere” or “I was told to do deep breathing.” When I ask if they know why deep breathing works and if they regularly practice it, I usually hear, “No.” I have even heard some absurd anxiety-coping strategies such as, “I was told that if you eat a banana before you perform it will keep you from getting stage fright.”
I cannot find any research supporting banana eating as an effective way to reduce performance anxiety. I have actually seen musicians eat bananas prior to their performance. If they experienced anything positive they can thank the placebo effect.
To manage performance anxiety effectively you must understand the physiological mechanism of anxiety. It is quite simple. The amygdala is the structure in your brain that is responsible for your survival. Based on your past experience, you have learned what is and is not dangerous. Once you have determined something is dangerous your brain stores a preset trigger and a preset response: the fight, flight or freeze response.
This response is critical for chance encounters with rattlesnakes, but not so good for a 14-year-old singer when a performance breakdown caused her amygdala to program “singing is dangerous” into her brain. Thereafter her amygdala continually evaluated any sensory input related to singing as dangerous. When I met her, she had not performed for six years.
My first intervention when coaching performing artists is to help them understand and recognize the machine-like nature of the body’s physiological process. When you put your car key in the ignition and turn it, you expect the car to start. The turning of the key is the trigger and the starting of the engine is the response. For this young singer just the thought of singing was the trigger, and her response was anxiety and avoidance.
The quickest way to eliminate stage fright is to call any experience or symptoms of anxiety “activation.” Technically your sympathetic nervous system has been activated. It’s no longer stage fright, anxiety, panic, or stress, it’s I’m activated and how am I going to manage being activated?
Becoming activated is a physical and emotional experience. Let’s look first at the physical symptoms of activation of the amygdala.
How do you know when you are activated? Rate yourself on the following scale, from 0 to 10. A “0” means no symptoms; a “10” means severe symptoms (Figure 2). Each person is unique in his or her experience of these symptoms.
Learning the skills to manage these symptoms is easy, but it requires practice. Taking a few deep breaths when you become panicked doesn’t do much good. On the other hand, practicing and developing deactivation or relaxation skills creates confidence in your ability to manage your anxiety.
Try this for the next two weeks. Sit down in a comfortable position. Say out loud or in your mind, “Body, it’s time to relax.” Breathe gently and normally from the diaphragm. As you inhale squeeze your hands into a fist and feel the tension. As you exhale open and relax your hands as you say, “Body, relax.” Do this 10 times. It takes less than a minute, but with regular practice this becomes a very effective tool for reducing excessive activation. Do this ten-count breathing exercise at least twice a day. The exercise is a great way to start and end a rehearsal or practice session.
You can also extend the ten-count breathing exercise into a meditation or relaxation session you can do in five to 20 minutes.
Sit in a comfortable chair. Close your eyes and start your relaxation session by saying, “Body, it’s time to relax.” Follow with the ten-count breathing exercise, and then continue the relaxation session using the relaxation script below (modify it as desired to best suit your needs). You might want to record yourself reading it, then listen to it and follow along. Take a complete breath between phrases and proceed very slowly.
Forehead and eyes relax (breathe) . . .
Face relax (breathe) . . .
Neck and shoulders relax . . .
Arms relax . . .
Stomach and breathing relax . . .
Legs relax . . .
Curl your toes and feel the tension in your feet. Push your heels down into the floor and feel the tension in your legs. Let them relax . . .
Tighten your stomach, then relax . . .
Make a fist with your hands and squeeze them tight. Now let the tension go . . .
Pull your shoulders up towards your ears, feel the tension, and then let it go . . .
Tighten all the muscles in your face, and then let them relax . . .
Let your forehead and eyes relax . . .
Let your breathing slow and calm . . .
Let your stomach relax . . .
Let your legs relax . . .
Let your toes relax . . .
Let your entire body relax . . .
This usually takes from five to 10 minutes.
Now try adding my favorite mantra meditation. Think of the word “peaceful” as you breathe in, then think, “full of peace,” as you breathe out. Try this with words such as grateful, wonderful, playful, joyful, hopeful, faithful, peaceful, successful, beautiful, and delightful. Notice the contrast with words such as fearful, spiteful, resentful, and shameful. If you are full of thoughts and emotions that relate to these negative words you are probably experiencing anxiety.
When you become aware of a negative thought, you can practice saying, “Let it go.” Shift your focus to a more positive word or phrase. Try this with words such as excited, energized, confident, and focus. Words are powerful!
Many think of activation as the enemy, but consider that every great performance requires a level of activation best suited for that performance. You want to have an optimal level of activation. When you become overly activated the symptoms of anxiety—such as loss of fine motor control and loss of breath support—start to negatively impact your performance. So the goal is not to eliminate activation, but to develop the ability to bring yourself back down into level that supports your performance.
Note: Trying to control or eliminate all activation is impossible and distracting. Often just saying “I’m activated so what” can help you calm down.
Under-activation is due most often to issues with motivation, sleep, burnout, fatigue, pressing concerns, or general health. Motivation issues are best talked through with a coach, psychologist, or close friend. Health-related issues are best worked through with your health care provider.
Being aware of the issues and concerns that negatively impact your energy is important. Many will take some time to resolve. In the short term, when you find yourself with low energy before a performance, try this. Start thinking the words, “I am excited.” Begin to move your arms as if you were running hard or even run in place as you say to yourself, “I am excited.” Do this for about one minute. This will raise your level of activation and energy.
Managing an optimal level of activation is a skill. Like any other skill your abilities are in direct proportion to the time you spend practicing. People who practice daily relaxation live longer and are happier and healthier than people who don’t. Try it for a month and see what it does for you. Let me know how it worked. I’d love to hear your success story.