Stage fright, the heebie jeebies, a bad case of the willies. Call it what you will, but one thing is for sure, performance anxiety is the cruel mistress of many performing artists.
According to a recent survey conducted by Help Musicians UK, 75% of musicians said they had suffered from performance anxiety. Similarly, research from One Dance UK demonstrated that 92% of dancers had experienced psychological difficulty in the last 12 months, with over 30% experiencing performance anxiety. But what exactly is performance anxiety, why does it happen, and the big one we all want the answer to; how on earth do we get a grip of it?
Lets get down to the science-y bit. Psychologists seem to agree that anxiety manifests in two key ways; somatically and cognitively. Somatic symptoms are those we experience physically, such as sweating, racing hearts and needing the bathroom, causing us to feel agitated and uncomfortable. They’re all signs that our body is out of sync with its neutral state, signs of physiological arousal. These experiences are common in all pressurised situations, from test-taking, public speaking and sport, to the performing arts, dance and music. For some, symptoms occur long before performance, from early days in rehearsal. For others, symptoms hit us like a tonne of bricks, right out of the blue, when we’re standing in the wings.
Now here’s the interesting stuff. All of these symptoms have something else in common, something which differs vastly from anxiety. They’re all symptoms of excitement. Just like that feeling of waking up on your birthday, or falling in love, they are symptoms that are telling us that we are energised, ready for action, and prepared to experience something deeply rewarding, of great value.
But what about those cognitive symptoms, those we experience mentally such as worry, apprehension and nerves that ultimately can lead us to a mental block? There’s pretty solid evidence that performance anxiety occurs when an individual perceives an imbalance between the demands made, and their capacity to meet the demands. The key word here is perceived. What if we changed our perceptions of our symptoms, and our perceptions of performance? What if we changed up our mind-set and tried interpreting those symptoms as a sign of preparedness, and positive anticipation. Research we’ve carried out both here at Trinity Laban, and research by international colleagues, demonstrated that perceiving an upcoming performance as a challenge (a chance to thrive and demonstrate competency) rather than a threat (a chance to fail) lead to decreased anxiety experiences in both the days leading up to and very moments prior to performance.
Next time you have an assessment, performance or audition coming up, notice your immediate somatic response. Your interpretation is key. Is this related to a threat? Or actually, is this an optimal challenge? Is your mental investment really worry, or is thinking about an upcoming audition merely a sign that this is something of real value to you, an exciting experience? Learning to change mental habits is by no means an easy process, but a process it certainly is – which means time, patience and trial and error are key. Reframing your thoughts about your next performance may be the first steps towards managing your performance anxiety, and developing healthy techniques for looking after your psychological wellbeing is just as important as nurturing your dance or music technique.
Lucie Clements, PhD candidate Dance Science & Lecturer in Performance Psychology.