Performance Anxiety: Why You Need to Stop Trying to 'Relax'

It’s common advice given to young performers who come up against what I call performance anxiety (you might know it as stage fright, jitters, butterflies, or nerves).

“Just relax – you got this!”

“There’s nothing to be nervous about!”

“It’ll be fine!”

While I’m certain that it will, in fact, be fine, and that you DO ‘got this,’ I also know those tidbits of advice don’t exactly help you manage the feelings you’re having under the stress of performance.

Dealing with performance anxiety actually boils down to how you mentally and physically handle stress! So before you can go about the business of tackling this stress, you need to look at how you as an individual react to stress. Stress manifests itself in two forms: mental & physical.

How many of these affect you in a stressful situation? Maybe you even have another symptom that’s not on the list. The important thing is to note how stress affects you, and realize that stress affects all humans in one way or another, so you’re in great company! Take a moment and make a note of all the ways stress affects you: what muscles get tense? What happens to your inner monologue?

The consequences of this stress in a performance setting tend to lead to less coordination in fine motor skills, faulty decision-making, and a loss of mental focus or hyperactive mental focus. So what can we do to combat this stress?

We need to stop trying to ‘relax,’ and learn to channel that energy to enhance our performance.

One way to do this is through a process called ‘centering.’ This process helps us address both the physical and mental issues that present with stress, and lets us perform from a place of inner quiet. So here’s how you begin:

  • Take a seat. Sit comfortably with both feet on the floor, spine upright and comfortable.

  • Form your intention: what is it you hope to accomplish by centering?

  • Pick a focus point that is a few feet in front of you and below the level of your eyes - this helps the brain shift from left-brain to right-brain activity.

  • Close your eyes and focus on your intention. Breathe in through the nose & out through the mouth for three to seven breaths. This helps us slow the heart rate.

  • Begin scanning the body for muscular tension. When you find an area of tension, release it with your next exhale and continue scanning.

  • Now to find your center: this internal pond is a wonderful place to perform from! Imagine a small, warm ball of sunlight bubbling around in your lower abdomen. The exact location isn’t terribly important – allow yourself to get out of your head and just explore the source of that energy.

  • Bring your attention back to your initial intention, and allow this ball of energy to travel up the spine and behind your eyes. As you open your eyes, send this energy out to your focus point. Play with the level of focus you use to send this energy outward: narrow the scope and then widen it. See how long you can maintain it.

You’ll need to practice centering a lot to really get the hang of it, and you’ll get faster at each step the more you do it. This is just the beginning of learning to get a handle on your performance anxiety, and the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll begin to see the benefits: that pesky inner critic will quiet down, and you’ll be able to create art from a place of inner calm.

Centering is just the beginning of learning to handle the stress of performance well. Once this process becomes a staple of your technique, we can learn to recover from mistakes, construct a mental barrier to tune out distractions, increase the efficiency of our practice, and so much more.

If you’re interested in learning more about performance anxiety and getting some individualized help in developing this skill, check out GRVC’s Performance Anxiety class. The 4-week class meets once a week and will build the skills necessary to help you overcome any stressful performance situation. For more info, click here.

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