Today we look at some strategies that can help us deal with our performance anxiety. In our previous article, we looked at how you can recognise anxiety. If you haven't done so, click here to read that article first.
This one strategy that can help you overcome performance anxiety. A full-body relaxation is great for anxiety control because it works directly on activating the parasympathetic nervous system(1) or the 'off-switch'. Relaxation exercises help reduce your heart rate, breathing rate, metabolic rate, sweating, tension and adrenalin secretion.
When you first become anxious, become aware of your breath. When you are anxious, you tend to breather faster, taking shallow breaths from the chest area. Breathing is healthiest when it occurs from the abdomen (the diaphragm).
Try some of the following exercises.
A. Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) (2).
This is where you tense and relax different parts of your body, starting from the bottom of your body, working your way up towards the face. Take note of how your body and muscles feel when you tense and then relax. This exercise will require 15-20 minutes of your time. Find a quiet place where you can sit or lie down. If you think you may become cold, get a light blanket to cover yourself. You can work on the whole body or a particular muscle group.
Feet - point and flex your feet for 10 seconds, then relax.
Legs - stretch out the legs and lift them up a little to create tension, then relax.
Butt - tighten the butt muscles, hold and relax. Do this for 10 seconds.
Stomach - tighten the muscles of the stomach to create tension. Relax and repeat.
Back - arch the back and squeeze the shoulder blades to create tension. Relexa and repeat several times.
Shoulders - lift the shoulders up and then drop them, then repeat. Roll your shoulders backwards then forwards.
Neck - tilt your head back and then bend forward, then tilt from side to side. Bring your head to centre, relax and repeat.
Arms - make a fist with your hands and bring the hands towards your shoulders to create tension. Relax and then repeat.
Hands - squeeze your hand into a fist, and then let go by spreading the fingers out. Relax and repeat.
Face - tighten the muscles in the fae by tightening your jaw and wrinkle up the face muscles. Relax and repeat.
Give attention to your whole body, feeling an overall sense of relaxation.
When you are ready, slowly return to the room, sit up and open your eyes.
B. Autogenic Relaxation (3)
For those who are more experienced at relaxing, you could try autogenic relation, which is more of a mental form of relaxation. This involves you giving attention to a particular part of the body and sending the message of relaxation to it and thinking of it becoming warm and heavy. This exercise will require 15-20 minutes of your time. Find a quiet place where you can sit or lie down. If you think you may become cold, get a light blanket to cover yourself. You can work on the whole body or a particular muscle group. Start with your arms: left hand, left forearm, left upper arm, left shoulder, right hand, right forearm, right upper arm, right shoulder. Legs: left foot, left calf, left thigh, right foot right calf, right thigh. Torso: stomach, chest, back, buttocks. Head: neck, face, jaw, lips, eyes, head. When you are ready, return your attention to the room.
C. Breathing Awareness
This involves you slowing your breathing rate down and taking in air so that you fill your lungs from near the diaphragm before air fills up the chest area. Check your breathing by placing one hand on your diaphragm and the other on your chest. Notice whether you are breathing in a regular way or if you are holding your breath. To practice breathing awareness:
Find a comfortable position either sitting or lying down. Close your eyes.
Become aware of your breath and notice how it flows in and out of your nose.
As you breathe in, feel the air filling up the bottom of your lungs.
Allow your breath to become slow and smooth, creating a steady rhythm with each breath you take.
Each time you breath out, feel the body letting go, with your shoulders dropping and muscles relaxing. Feel the tension drift away from the whole body.
You can practice breathing awareness many times during your normal day, whenever you start to feel tense. As musicians, it is good to incorporate breathing into your practice sessions.
2. Time-out activities
These are activities that take your mind off performing such as reading, watching tv, playing sport or socialising.
3. Dealing with our performance mistakes
For many performers, anxiety is a result of focussing excessively on their mistakes rather than other aspects of their performance. One way to overcome this problem is to record your performance, and review it a few days later. This will help you view your performance as an audience member rather than from the point of the performer, and you will find you will be less harsh or critical of yourself. When dealing with mistakes always put the mistake in perspective, acknowledging what went well in the performance, and what was the overall outcome. Did your mistakes really ruin the performance? Treat mistakes as pointers for improvement.
Remember, as some who knows a piece intimately, you will notice your mistakes more than an audience member or someone who does not know your piece as well. During the performance, leave the mistakes in the past and focus on the present, despite being upset at yourself. When you make a mistake during a performance, become task focus. Focus on the rhythm or the emotion or your bowing. Even smile when you make mistake, as this will help relax the muscles around mouth and eyes, and prevent you from tensing up.
Mental imagery helps elite performers, athletes and leaders perform at their best. Mental rehearsal or visualisation involves creating in your mind an image of yourself going through your performance, or parts of it without actually doing so. You can train your mind to complete a performance perfectly even when you're still not able to do so in reality. It can also be used to enhance your memory of the music. Visualisation can help you build self-esteem, reduce anxiety and increase skill development.
5. Healthy Lifestyle
Your lifestyle has a big impact on your mental state and how you cope in stressful situation. Eating healthy and staying away from junk food and sugary foods will help your body cope under stress. When we are stressed, our bodies require more B complex vitamins and increases protein use, requiring more calcium in our diets. Avoid sugary foods and fats found in red meat, dairy products, chocolates, cakes and snack foods. Eat a variety of complex carbohydrates, such as pasta and brown rice, fruit and vegetables, as these will help you maintain a stable body weight. They also provide a slower and more continuous release of energy than simple carbohydrates. A sustained release of energy is beneficial when you have to perform to avoid energy swings. Finally, drink lots of water.
Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, which is found in coffee, tea, chocolate and cola drinks. Caffeine creates similar effects to that of adrenaline, which can lead to an increased heart rate, breathing and anxiety.
Sleep and rest are also important. Try the 90-minute rule, and aim to get 35 90-minute cycles per week, that is, seven and a half hours of sleep each night. (4) Everybody is different. I find I need 9 hours of sleep to function and maintain my energy throughout the day. Find out what works for you and develop a routine.
So I hope you enjoy my favourite 5 tips for dealing with performance anxiety. Stay tuned for more exciting articles!
(4) Littlehales, Nick, 2016. Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps... and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body and Mind. Penguin Random House, UK.