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How to beat performance anxiety

Running Head MIND performance anxiety
Speak freely
Dry those sweaty palms and overcome stage fright or a fear of public speaking using a few tried and true methods. By Cynthia Hickman

watch your self-talk about the nervousness. For example, don’t say something like, “I’m nervous. It must mean I don’t want to do this.” Instead, tell yourself, “I’m excited. My body is helping me get ready for this extra level of activity. This is good.”

Focus on the essence of what you want to get across to the audience, what you want them to receive. What are your motives for performing? Use this to motivate you and get beyond the self-focus of the nervousness.

How to beat performance anxiety

Your hands are sweating, your heart is thumping and you have the urge to go to the toilet again, despite having been 10 minutes ago. Your mind races hysterically. “Why do I do this to myself? I hate this. Oh God, are my hands shaking? Stop it, hands. OK, just breathe. Help, I can’t even remember the first words! I can’t go out there. What are they going to think of me?”

Welcome to the world of public performance. Most of us are familiar with the experience of pre-performance nerves. For some, it was the dreaded class presentations or music performances during their school years. Some may have had to give a speech at some sort of social gathering, such as a birthday or wedding. For others, it will arise as they deliver a presentation or training package as part of their work duties.

Very few people can perform publicly without experiencing some sort of nervousness; for many, it generates an anxiety that verges on panic. Most people have seen the ubiquitous list that rates public speaking as more frightening than financial hardship and even death. While such results are debatable, they nevertheless indicate how common is the fear of public performance, whether it involves speech, sporting activity or artistic pursuits such as acting or singing.

Some famous performers admit to having stage fright to the extent of throwing up and say this has gone on for their entire careers. Others deliberately train themselves and become so practised at stepping in front of an audience that they can actually enjoy the process and have fun. I have a friend who really loves performing, even though it’s also what he fears the most. Now that’s a bind to be in!

Whether you love to perform and choose to do it or whether you just have to do it as part of your job, it can be useful to know how to work with your anxiety so it doesn’t hamper your success. Following are some useful tips for managing performance anxiety.

1. Long-term preparation

Build capacity

One important tip is to perform frequently. Then you get used to the nervousness and can manage it more easily. As with most things, practice makes it easier. Your system gets used to the higher activation level and instead of being overwhelmed by it you become habituated and are less debilitated. It’s a useful version of familiarity breeding contempt, even thought contempt is probably not the right word here.

If you are not performing regularly, find some forum where you can still practise. I remember many years ago enrolling in an improvisation course because I wanted to become more comfortable with performing in front of people. It wasn’t that I wanted to act; it was just that these classes provided a safe practice ground to build up familiarity with being in front of an audience. Such classes provide a friendly, supportive practice environment in which you can break though fears with other people who are learning, too.

As you dwell on your fear of performing, ask yourself what you are afraid of. Cover your worst-case scenario. It might be you running off the stage with everyone laughing. Think realistically how likely this is: it’s very unlikely! This reality check in your calm moments will give you a useful perspective. Your anxious thinking creates extreme, unrealistic scenarios that you then use to scare yourself. You don’t have to let this happen. Catch the fearful thoughts and do the reality check. Don’t let the drama queen inside take over! Counter your own self-talk.

It can be useful to build up your capacity to manage nerves gradually instead of jumping in the deep end and performing in front of a stadium of people. Start with a safe friend or family member. Get comfortable with it before moving on to a small group of strangers. Gradually build up to more people and less familiar settings. Another useful preparation is to perform while you have a friend deliberately act bored while you are doing it. You then get used to blocking out their lack of interest. Then you can still perform despite this distraction.

Manage your own energy

Performance jitters can feel out of control, but with practice you can actually have a lot of influence over your own nervous system. One way is to become familiar with how your body feels when it’s relaxed and confident. Notice the details. What is your posture? What position are your shoulders, neck and legs in? Practise putting your body into this confident posture. Notice how different from a scared posture it feels.

The high adrenalin arousal is what brings us undone before performing, so it can be useful to do some ongoing meditation practice to maintain a constant low arousal level. Your system will then be used to being able to settle by choice, and be used to being brought under control.

If you are a sensitive person, high stimulus situations can easily overwhelm you. Performance settings are definitely this. Walking into a venue can over-stimulate you so that you have trouble calming down. It’s a new place, with unfamiliar sounds and lights. It’s all foreign and you are overwhelmed trying to process all the new information. So you need to get used to being able to put up a boundary between yourself and the outside world when you choose to so that you don’t become overwhelmed.

To create a boundary, imagine you have roots going down into the ground from your feet. Feel the deep, heavy connection here. Second, visualise a bubble of light around you. Imagine that sights and sounds just bounce off this bubble away from you. You remain untouched. Third, practise pulling your energy field in tightly. We all have a field of energy around us that can move in and out and become lighter or denser.

People we call thick-skinned have a tightly held, dense field. They are not highly influenced by an outside stimulus. Sensitive people, on the other hand, usually have a diffuse field that goes out a long way from their body. To prevent being overwhelmed by a performance setting, you have to become adept at adjusting your own energy field. Practise pulling it in and out. Practise making it dense or diffuse at will. When you go to a venue to perform, bring your field in and make it denser so you don’t pick up on everything around you.

Resolve deeper issues

Sometimes, it’s not just nervousness related to the actual situation that gives you trouble. You may also have underlying anxiety. If you have anxieties that are unaddressed, the performance times will be like a conduit through which this deeper anxiety can find an outlet. This just doubles the nervousness, as some of it is not about the actual situation – it’s about something buried deeper.

There may be issues of self-esteem. Do you count on others to give you your sense of self-worth? Do you use performing to boost an inferior sense of self? Do you need the affirmation and approval of the audience? If this is the case, you are loading the performance with unnecessary weight. The stakes become too high. Better to address such issues so you are free to enjoy the attention and self-expression for their own sake.

The deeper anxiety may have nothing to do with the actual performance. Andrew* was bothered by nerves before work presentations. He had strict parents who had always been harsh and critical. No matter what Andrew did, he never felt good enough and always expected to be “shot down”, as he put it. Any audience threw him back into this family scenario. No matter how friendly and welcoming an audience was, in his unconscious he was still back in front of his parents preparing to be mocked and criticised. Without dealing with this issue, he would continue to be triggered by his work presentations.

There may also be external triggers that generate anxiety. There can be pressure from others who need you to do well for their own reasons. For example, you may be picking up on your coach, colleague or band member’s insecurities or anxieties. Roger*, for example, was a professional sportsman. He had the capacity to perform much better in competitions than he was doing. As we went through his races frame by frame, he noticed that near the end of the race his coach’s voice would come into his mind. It was a panicked, frenzied voice and it completely threw him.

Roger completely lost focus when his coach’s urgent voice was in his head. It made him feel pressured and desperate instead of in the flow of his body’s performance. He therefore had to talk to his coach about adjusting the motivational style. He also had to practise blocking out any voices while competing and substituting these voices with his own positive mantras. Once he did this, he was able to perform at his peak.

2. Short-term preparation

The content

It’s obvious but still worth mentioning that you should prepare thoroughly. It’s not fair on yourself, your audience or your nervous system to count on being able to “wing it”. If you have prepared well, then no matter how nervous you are, when you open your mouth it will just happen.

To prepare well, you need to have internalised your performance. This means making it real at a deep level instead of it being rote-learned. It has to be alive inside you. What are you expressing? What is its meaning to you? Visualise a picture or have a soundscape or feeling state for each section of the work. This helps build a sense of the work inside yourself.

It’s also useful to run an internal video of the performance in your imagination. Go into detail, from getting to the building to warming up, approaching the microphone and then actually performing. As you do this, maintain a deep relaxation. If anxiety arises, pause the internal video, go through your relaxation procedure and only continue the video when you are calm again. It’s like self-hypnosis. Sports people, in particular, use this technique to manage their performance.

It sounds contradictory, but you also don’t want to over-prepare. This can suck the life out of your performance. Allow space for free flow, for the creativity and fun that may want to arise in response to the audience. An example would be for a singer to ad-lib their audience interaction instead of having a prepared talk.

The externals

It can be really useful to see the venue beforehand. Otherwise, some of your energy and attention is taken up with processing the new environment when instead you need to access all your energy for the actual performance. A day or so before is best, but even arriving an hour before you go on is better than not seeing the place at all. Walk around and get comfortable with the space. Notice where people will sit, where you will be positioned, where you enter from and where the audience might come and go from. Notice the lighting, check for stairs and manage any props. When these things have been processed, you are then free to attend to your internal preparation.

3. On The Day

Physically

Make sure you dress comfortably. You don’t need tight clothes adding to your unease. And choose your outfit well beforehand so you don’t find yourself at the venue obsessing about whether your outfit is appropriate or not. You don’t need this extra worry! Have this internal debate days before. Also, make a tick list of props so you don’t have to count on remembering things while in the anxious state. Have everything gathered together so you can just go.

Go through a routine whereby you check on and adjust your physical relaxation. Check your limbs: are they loose? Unlock your knees. Unlock your fists, teeth and jaw. Hum to clear your throat. Shake to get out excess nervous energy. Don’t stay still with energy locked inside you; it just builds. Let it have an outlet.

Managing your breathing is essential. Breathe slowly right down into your belly. Start with a breath that lasts for three counts and gradually make the counts longer. Watch that your upper chest or shoulders don’t rise: this is a sign of anxious breathing. If you can get your breathing relaxed, it sends a message to your nervous system that everything is OK and it calms down.

Mentally

It may be uncomfortable, but it’s good to have some degree of nervousness. It means your body knows something is happening and it is preparing you, giving you access to extra energy. So watch your self-talk about the nervousness. For example, don’t say something like, “I’m nervous. It must mean I don’t want to do this.” Instead, tell yourself, “I’m excited. My body is helping me get ready for this extra level of activity. This is good.” Get used to being in this nervous state. But stop calling it nervousness. It is a higher energy state. Tell yourself it’s a positive state and not something bad to be avoided. It’s like someone has turned up the volume control dial. You just have to get used to functioning at this higher level.

Act calmly in your demeanour and behaviour. Don’t follow your nerves and let yourself become scattered or revved up or drama-queenish. If necessary, put some distance between you and people whose habit is to become revved up. Don’t pick up on their energy. Don’t let a group talk itself up into a manic, scattered state. You want your energy channelled into the performance, not dissipated beforehand.

Once you have yourself under control, then take the focus off yourself. Focus on the essence of what you want to get across to the audience, what you want them to receive. What are your motives for performing? Use this to motivate you and get beyond the self-focus of the nervousness. It’s not just about you and how you look, how you come across and what people think of you. It’s about touching people, giving them some particular experience. Do you want to uplift people, make them laugh, think or have fun? Do you want to inspire or create some common ground between people? This sharing and creative expression are the true focus of your performance.

4. During

Before you walk out, consciously put your body into its confident posture. Lead your body into the energy you want; don’t let the nervousness lead you. Take it slowly as you adjust to being on stage. Don’t rush in. Just take your time. Time will seem elongated to you up there. So what may seem like a long time to you will be only seconds to the audience. Get yourself comfortable and ready. You are in charge. Don’t feel pressured to rush on with it. It’s your time and your timing.

Stay grounded. Feel your feet on the floor. Don’t let yourself become frozen. Make your body move. And make yourself look around. Don’t let your attention narrow into a tunnel view. Open your attention out from yourself to the audience out there. You want to reach out to the audience, not lock up inside yourself. The idea is that an energy connection and flow is made between you and the audience.

As you continue, look at the people who are enjoying the show, not the others. Make eye contact with these people. Giving them this attention pulls their positive attention in to you even more. And keep remembering to stay in your body. If you can, surrender to the energy of your performance. Let it flow from you; let yourself be moved by it. You are a conduit, an opening for this creativity to flow outwards.

5. Afterwards

Remember that many mistakes probably won’t be noticed. You are the expert, not the audience. The overall spirit of it all is what counts. This covers any mishaps. And most people want you to succeed. So don’t be overly critical of yourself.

Affirm yourself for taking up the challenge. Yes, it may be tough to start with and maybe you felt sick, but you are getting up and giving it a go nevertheless. Remind yourself that this takes courage. You are building strength, skill and competence.

You may feel a high after the performance. It can be great to do your thing for people, to have it appreciated. It’s great to break through the nerves and put yourself out there. It’s the culmination of all your preparation. Remember this state and use it to fuel future performances. You’ll be performing at the Sydney Opera House in no time!

*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality
Cynthia Hickman is a psychologist in private practice in Melbourne, Australia. T: 0417 103 018, W: www.cynthiahickman.net

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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