By Dr. Chelsea Tanner
We’ve all heard the classic ways to deal with performance anxiety—eat a banana, take deep breaths, remember how good you are, and so on. But why do we feel this in the first place? Google defines performance anxiety as: “extreme nervousness experienced before or during participation in an activity taking place in front of an audience.” Nervousness and anxiety are both human emotions. To understand why these emotions come up, we have to ask our brain some questions and understand the survival mechanisms our brain has in place that conflict with the ultimate goal of performing in front of an audience.
Emotions are caused by how the brain is thinking and interpreting the world. If anxiety is coming up for you, your brain is perceiving the situation you are in as a survival threat. This is clear when we consider the symptoms of adrenaline that come up in a performance—rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, increased sweating, shaking, etc.—as being caused by the fight or flight response. When you get on a stage in front of people who could judge you and ultimately reject you (such as in an audition), the brain tends to freak out. Thousands of years ago when we lived in small communities, rejection meant that we would likely die alone in the woods. Nowadays, though we are no longer doomed to a lonely life in the woods, our brains continue to react to rejection in the same way as in the past. It makes sense that our brain would try to do anything to avoid a situation that may result in rejection, or being separate from a group (i.e., performing).
Self-doubt is the brain’s way of trying to keep you safe from the fears of rejection. If your brain can convince you not to perform, or not to put your whole heart into something because it may be painful afterward, it has done its job. Your brain is trying to keep you alive, just like every other organ in your body, but some of the wiring is a bit outdated. We all know you won’t actually die if a performance doesn’t go well. This is why it is important to become aware of how your brain is operating, and what sort of stakes you’re putting on the performance both consciously and subconsciously.
Here are a few questions to get to know your brain.
What are you afraid will happen if this performance doesn’t go well? What emotions will come up? What will it mean about you as a musician/performer/person?
Pause to write down some of your answers if you can.
Any surprises? Do you find that some answers are rational like, “Well, I know that nothing will really happen if I make mistakes.” and some may sound like, “Making mistakes means I’m not professional enough or good enough.” The former is coming from your rational mind, your prefrontal cortex – the part of your brain that has the ability to plan and see things rationally. The latter is likely what your self-talk sounds like before a performance when your survival brain kicks in.
Usually if a performance doesn’t go well, we make it mean that we’ve failed, that we aren’t good enough, or that we are going to disappoint people. We can even make the fact that we have anxiety mean that we aren’t a “natural” talent or performer - which isn’t true. We interpret mistakes as having done something wrong instead of what they are: doing something you didn’t intend to do - which is not a wrong thing to do. When you realize that your brain is making mistakes like missed notes in a performance mean that you aren’t “good enough” or that you’re a “failure,” it is easy to see why you would be feeling so much pressure for the performance. Those are very high stakes.
How do we change this? Once you’ve asked your brain what you’re making your performances mean about you and what might happen if one doesn’t go well, it is time to decide whether or not you want to keep thinking that way. If you decide that you’d like to think differently, know that those thoughts you uncovered won’t just magically disappear. Thoughts are habits just like there are flute habits or practice habits, they won’t stop overnight. We create strong neural pathways in the brain through repetition, making it easy for us to think the same thoughts over and over. Most people do this unconsciously, without questioning the thoughts they’re thinking. To break out of bad thought habits you must create new neural pathways by purposefully thinking different thoughts over and over again. The question then is, what thoughts should we think?
Personally, I love stating things in a neutral way. Neutral thoughts are something you can easily believe and have less of a negative emotional effect. Here are some examples of changing a negative thought into a neutral one:
“If I mess up, I’m a total failure,” becomes “I might do something I didn’t intend to on stage.”
“If I don’t win this audition, I wasn’t good enough,” becomes “I can be good enough to win an audition, and not win that audition.”
“I don’t want to feel disappointed,” becomes “There’s a good chance I’ll feel disappointed after this audition, I know how to handle that and take care of myself.”
“I’m afraid of rejection” becomes “Not getting into something doesn’t mean anything about my worth as a person, or a musician.”
Practicing thoughts like these are some of the best ways to rewire your brain. You can practice them every single day. Remind yourself to think these neutral thoughts. I use post-it’s, but you can make a fun background on your phone of one of these thoughts if you’re preparing for a performance. You can make it the password to your computer or write it on a piece of paper and keep it in your flute case. Your brain needs to be reminded to think this way because these thoughts won’t be the automatic ones that come up at first.
Now, how do you deal with the old habitual thought patterns? Allow the thoughts to come up, and just observe when they do. Notice the thought like you might a passing car, and let it continue on its way. You may not be able to just observe them in real time, but it is worth trying to get to that place. When you realize you had moments that made you feel nervous, or you started doubting yourself, start writing your thoughts down and how they make you feel. You can also come back to it later that day or the next to see what your mind came up with that made you feel insecure and anxious. When this happens, know that this voice, this part of you, is scared. Self-soothing in these moments, as opposed to arguing with the self-doubt and thinking it shouldn’t be there, is so much more productive. Tell yourself that it’s okay, that you’re safe, and that you’re willing to feel whatever emotions come up during or after the performance.
When my mindset coaching clients put this process in place, they are able to change their thoughts and belief systems to ones that make them feel empowered. The understanding they gain of how their minds work, and how to work with it rather than fighting it, is such an amazing skill that can be applied in endless areas of flute-playing and everyday life. When you use this process, remember to err on the side of self-compassion. There’s no use beating yourself up for thinking negatively, that will just add to the shame and anxiety you might already be feeling. The music world is full of “not enough jobs” and a hustle culture unmatched by most industries. It makes sense that your brain has picked up a perfectionist mentality. Try to observe your mind without judging the thoughts that you’re thinking.
One more tip for when performance anxiety or nervousness comes up regardless of any thought work you’ve done: choose to feel it. This may seem counterintuitive. Why choose to feel the anxiety? I want you to think about what your inner monologue looks like when you resist anxiety. Probably something like, “OMG I shouldn’t be feeling this way. Why is this so easy for everyone else? I know I don’t play as well with anxiety, ugh, I should have postponed this recital!” Sound familiar? If you accept whatever emotions come up, it could look like, “Okay, I’m feeling anxious right now. My chest is tight, my throat is closed a little, and my heart is beating faster than normal. I’m going to take a deep breath and just choose to feel this in my body right now.” Those two different reactions to the same anxiety will elicit two different performances.
When you’re able to accept the emotions that come up, and you’re able to answer that self-doubt with neutral statements, you have the tools to help yourself through any tough performance situation. Observing your mind won’t just make you a better performer, it will make you aware of how your mindset is operating. When you understand your mindset, you can change it to empower yourself.
Dr. Chelsea Tanner maintains an active career as a sought-after performer, teacher, and mindset coach. She has served on the faculties of SUNY Potsdam's Crane School of Music and Penn State University. Chelsea currently resides in New York City, learn more at www.chelseatanner.com.