Befriending performance anxiety

For my first post, I want to deal with the topic of performance anxiety. Almost every musician I know has either dealt with or continues to deal with performance anxiety in some form or another. I still remember a recital many years ago, when I was so nervous, anxious, and afraid of failing that my leg literally shook throughout the entire performance. No matter what I tried – taking deep breaths, positive self-talk, forcefully reorienting my attention – etc., I felt so debilitated and helpless that by the time I was done, I was completely devastated by the experience.

In many ways, there is absolutely nothing wrong with feeling a rush of physiological energy before or during a performance. As a species, we have evolved to respond to high-stakes situations by releasing catecholamine, which includes neurotransmitters such as adrenaline and dopamine. These neurotransmitters prepare our bodies for “fight or flight”, and can benefit us by increasing our energy levels, loosening our limbs, and heightening our concentration.

Often, these experiences begin as somatic, meaning that they affect us on a physical level before we appraise them as either “good” or “bad”. This appraisal, however, is key to our experience of anxiety. When this energy is labeled as threatening, or is associated with fear or other negative emotions, it can overwhelm us to the point of debilitation. We literally believe that there is an imminent threat to our well being rather than realizing that we are in the middle of a musical performance, which regardless of outcome, will most likely not lead to death or bodily harm!

The interesting thing about this feeling is that often, we are aware that some part of ourselves is overreacting to our immediate or anticipated experience, and yet there is little to nothing that we can do about it. Suppress it and it comes back more powerfully, ignore it and watch it overcome you, engage it and it will lead you into endless rumination. And here, in the midst of our habitual and often ineffective ways of dealing with anxiety, is where mindfulness can help.

One of the most consequential and well-documented findings in the research literature on mindfulness is that it can reduce anxiety and improve emotional self-regulation. Although researchers are still in the process of determining why this happens, some theorize that mindfulness helps us change the context in which we examine negative experiences. Typically, we approach negative experiences as something that we should repress or fight, but when these experiences are examined through an open and curious disposition, their subjective meaning changes. What was once threatening is now simply one of many thoughts in an on-going stream. These thoughts, when acknowledged but not obsessed about, begin to loosen their grip on our attentional and emotional resources. Through this process, we begin to see how much of what we experience is the result of our conditioning. The nervousness, the shaking hands, but more importantly – the rumination and anxiety that accompany them, are two separate experiences that have been coupled through our conditioning, lack of careful attention, or fear of the unknown.

Unfortunately, the emotional labels or associations that we have attached to these physical sensations become so strong that that over time, they are triggered habitually and often inappropriately. Even worse, by trying to repress them, or by ruminating over them, we actually strengthen these connections. Yes your body is experiencing an energy rush, yes that is probably normal since you are going to need it to get through the performance, but no – it does not mean there is something wrong with you, or that you will fail, or that whatever negative thing that happened in the past is sure to happen again.

Once we have a created a space to see into the real nature of our experiences, then we no longer have to fight or push them away. We can let the experiences be what they are, and through this, allow the process of decoupling to begin. As our minds settle, energy is liberated from repression and resistance to acceptance, which in turn, allows our attentional resources to refocus on more important things. Through careful cultivation of our capacity to be aware without judgment, and through gentle but purposeful reengagement with a desired object of attention, we create new and more positive contexts for our experiences.

In the area below, I provide a mindfulness-based exercise for performance anxiety that I have used for many years. As with anything else, results will likely improve with regular and consistent practice. The exercise is also more effective when it is practiced long before the onset of an anxiety provoking event. After many years of struggling with this issue, I can honestly say that although I still feel an occasional rush of energy before an important event, I no longer feel the debilitating anxiety that would typically accompany it. Hope it does the same for you.

Mindfulness-Based Exercise for Performance Anxiety

  • Find a comfortable chair and a place where you can be undisturbed for 10-15 minutes.
  • Sit tall but relaxed.
  • Place your hands on your lap or in a comfortable position.
  • You may keep your eyes open or closed.
  • Focus on the natural ebb and flow of your breathing. Do not try to change anything about it, just notice the physical sensations of your breath. Do this for a couple of minutes.
  • Take three deep breaths through your nose or mouth.
  • As vividly as possible, imagine a situation in which you are likely to feel a great deal of performance anxiety, or one in which you already have.
  • Try to make the picture as clear as possible. Evoke people, places, smells, etc.
  • If you have evoked a powerful image, you will likely start to experience some of the same sensations as in the actual situation.
  • Allow every physical sensation and association to arise without interference.
  • As these sensations and associations arise, rather than push them away, simply notice them and label them as they enter your focus of attention. For example, “feeling tension in my stomach”, “my hands are sweaty”, “feeling anxious”, “feeling scared”.
  • Remind yourself that regardless of what arises in your mind, you are safe, and that the labels attached to these experiences are simply that – labels.
  • Do not fixate on any sensation or association. Instead, acknowledge each experience, label it, and return your attention to your breath for as long as possible.
  • Continue the exercise for about 10 minutes or for as long as possible. Setting an alarm is helpful, as it will let you focus on the exercise rather than on time.
  • Declare an intention to bring this quality of openness and curiosity to any situation that invokes this level of anxiety.
  • Repeat this exercise daily as often as possible before your next performance.

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