Going to the Source: Origins of Performance Anxiety

 

Recently I talked with a singer who told me she’d been to an audition and in her words, “bombed it”. She said she’d disconnected from her breath, forgotten the words and generally felt awful. She chalked it up to not having done an audition in a long time.

I’m sure that was a part of it. There is an art to auditioning, as any singer will tell you. However, as our conversation continued, she went on to tell me how, at the end of the month, she would lose the administrative job that has been the bread and butter of her existence for many years. She runs a music program for children in the mornings and then goes to her desk job in the afternoon and sings in a prominent chorus as well as doing her own solo work on top of it all. Time to practice, she indicated, was hard to come by. The more we talked, the more I began to wonder if it was really the length of time between auditions that caused her anxiety and subsequent poor performance.

In our bodies, anxiety is created in the amygdala, a part of the brain where primal emotions are generated. When triggered it bypasses the rational part of our brain and sets off a physical reaction. Unfortunately, anxiety is also addictive in the sense that the more you worry, the more you wire your brain to worry. Your mind, therefore, will either be your biggest ally or your biggest enemy.

Anxiety can strike before, during or even after a performance (or it can happen all three times). Your brain’s ability to bypass the rational part of itself means you are left with a racing heart, shallow breathing, shaking body, nausea, dry mouth, tense shoulders and jaw and sweaty palms. Mentally there are repercussions too. You might have trouble sleeping, feel depressed, avoid practicing, snap at people around you because you are moody, forget the words, be confused on stage, worry, wrongly assess your performance or assume everyone there is waiting to see you fail. Once you start down the path of anxiety it can be hard to short circuit and instead it can snowball, pulling you into a vicious cycle. Some of you have probably experienced that on stage where you get anxious before going on, get out there and feel your knees knocking together, you can’t ever connect to your breath and then before you know it you forget the words and lose your place in the music. Ugh. No one should have to experience that more than once!

Understanding where your anxiety comes from can be tricky. You might be naturally shy or anxious, be afraid of the audience critiquing your performance negatively or had a specific experience in your past that triggered your anxiety. Perhaps you are singing music that is a bit beyond your current capacity, or you haven’t practiced enough or performed enough to feel comfortable. Maybe you just haven’t been taking good care of your self or are your own worst critic, seeing only the negative aspects of your performance. It could be that there is a stressful event in the rest of your life that you haven’t dealt with and that emotion is being represented as anxiety in your singing. Maybe you are not yet mindful of your anxiety to even know what triggers it for you.

In yogic thought, anxiety stems from a sense of disconnection from a larger Universe due to our limited notion of who we really are. In other words, we forget that we are all a part of something greater than ourselves, that we are more than our physical form. Instead we create ‘us against them’ situations and wrap ourselves up in our identities of being singers, parents, workers or any other hat you wear in your life, believing those identities to be who we are.  When we engage in those behaviors we disconnect from ourselves, our audience, (or conductor, band mates, pianists etc.) forget that we are all connected and box ourselves into specific identities. What anxiety universally tells us is that there is room for us to grow. If we befriend our anxiety we can see it as an opportunity to learn so as to make different, mindful choices in the future.

The time we spend on the mat in yoga helps us off the mat in these every day situations that arise. In yoga we get to know ourselves through the lens of compassion by being present. Present to our breath. Present to our bodies and what they can do for us. Present to the thoughts in our minds. If we pay attention through non-judgmental observation we begin to gain insight into our patterns. After our awareness is raised and we understand how we tend to act, we have an opportunity to make different choices at any given time because we are living in the present moment.

Let’s go back to the singer I mentioned in the beginning of this post. Her story told me several things: She hadn’t auditioned in a long time. She was facing a major life change by leaving a job she’d been at for a while which brought with it a need to find new patterns in her daily life and a big financial shift as well. Her life, in general, is a constant balance of juggling multiple sources of income, the demands of finding practice time, performing and fitting it all in around her personal life. Knowing what we do about where anxiety can come from, it becomes easier to see how her identification with her job, its end and the emotions surrounding that along with the constant stress of balancing her busy life on top of whatever other history she has with anxiety about auditioning/performing, how she typically assess her own performances and whether she is aware of any that, all contribute to her sense of anxiety. All of those things shunt her brain in the direction of anxiety, rather than staying open to connecting with the larger Universe and the people around her.

Her situation may sound familiar to you, or you could replace a few parts of her story with your own and see how this could be you. In Part II of Going to the Source, we’ll look at specific yogic based practices that when engaged in on a regular basis help quiet the mind, connect to the breath and turn performance anxiety into energy that can propel you to achieve your performance potential. Stay tuned!

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