5 Steps to Calm Performance Anxiety
Just thinking about performing on stage or giving a presentation in front of your colleagues is enough to induce sweaty palms. As a former classical musician, I'm no stranger to the nightmare that is stage fright: shaky hands, increased heart rate, and legs that instantly turn to jello. Anxiety acts much like the compound interest rates on my student loans. It quickly goes from a fear of missing those high notes to the fear of forgetting how to play the viola all together.
One of the benefits of studying the Alexander Technique is learning how to deal more productively with anxiety. Whether it comes up at an audition or on your way to a big date, you can learn to navigate stressful situations with more ease.
Here are 5 steps to help calm stage fright
1. Check In with Yourself
Ask yourself how your fear and anxiety is manifesting mentally and physically. What are you thinking about and what is happening in your body as a result? Here are some things you may notice:
Increased heart rate
Holding your breath
From head to toe, observe each symptom, but don't try to change any of them. Accept that your body is currently in fight or flight mode and is doing its best to protect you. Make a mental note of your observations and you are headed in the right direction!
An important first step in navigating out of the fight or flight response is regaining your connection to yourself and your surroundings. Each step will help take you out of your mental downward spiral and signal your body that everything is all right.
Notice where your body is in contact with the floor or any surfaces. For instance, if you are in a chair, you may notice that parts of your feet are touching the floor. Maybe your feet are crossed over each other. Your bottom and part of your back could be in contact with the chair. Your arms could be resting on your lap. Notice your skin touching your clothes. Sense the texture of your shirt and pants. Simply observe the different textures and points of contact your body is making with them.
3. Find Your Feet
When trapped in a fear response it's easy to become ungrounded. Find your inner support by bringing your attention to your feet. Imagine that each foot is a tripod. Weight distributing between three points in each foot: 50% of your weight on the heels, and 50% distributed between two points on the balls of your feet. The image below shows the tripod.
Let your feet connect to the ground and imagine the weight of your body flowing down to the floor through the tripods in your feet.
Often times we find ourselves holding our breath as part of the fear response. Instead of following the age old advice "take a breath," gently blow out the air in your lungs as if you are blowing through a straw. At the conclusion of each breath, close your lips and let the air return through your nose. Air will return to your lungs naturally, no need to pull or suck in air. Do this 3-5 times. This method of exhaling and allowing the breath to return will help reduce tension in your body that is often created unnecessarily when we "take a breath" first.
5. Look Around
The fight or flight response can easily force us to hyper focus our vision. Notice if you are tensing your eyes or squeezing the muscles in your face. Here is an easy activity you can do. Ask yourself to observe everything blue (or any color) in the room. Softly move your attention from blue object to blue object. Ask yourself to use your peripheral vision as well to assist you. This widens your field of vision and can help ease you out of a tense narrow focusing of the eyes.
Before the big day, practice using these steps while you are in a calm state. Go through these activities of sensory awareness while practicing your lines, presentation, music, etc. You can ground yourself in each of the senses. For example, notice how your viola feels in your hands. While you play, notice the different colors and shapes around the room. You may still experience discomfort while going through these steps and are nervous. That's okay. Keep bringing your attention back to your senses. Coming back to the present is a skill that takes practice, and it will make those vulnerable moments in the spotlight all the more enjoyable and freeing!
These sensory awareness steps were inspired by the works of Anne Johnson, Jessica Wolf, and my own experiences as a performer and Alexander Technique teacher.