Thursday, 16 April 2015

Performance Anxiety: The Agony and the Ecstasy

It's often regarded as a strange thing, that people who perform for a living should feel anxious about it. Surely, if it's what you've chosen to do as a career and you love it, or even if it's just a hobby and you love it, fear shouldn't be apart of it, right? Well... it's not actually that simple.
- I've suffered with performance anxiety, which I know is really hard for a lot of people to believe. People who know me find it really difficult to understand how I, a seasoned performer who gigs regularly in front of people and gets up on stage to act/sing/dance, could possibly suffer any form of performance anxiety. Well it's the truth, and I shall explain it now.

Performance Anxiety, in biological terms is when your body reacts to the situation of being 'centre-of-attention' in much the same way as it would if you were being attacked. Your body's "fight-or-flight" mechanism kicks in: a surge of adrenaline, increased heart-rate, faster & shallower breathing, which is why symptoms of stage fright are similar to symptoms that occur when you are in real danger. A racing pulse, rapid breathing, trembling hands, nausea, and a dry mouth are all typical symptoms of anxiety, where your body is essentially 'panicking'. I've known several people in my life, very talented people when you see them act or play, but backstage beforehand they are in an absolute state and afraid to go on and perform. It can be baffling to many, but I know first hand how bad it feels. The real issue with performance anxiety, is that, some anxiety is actually needed in order for you to perform well. The direct relation of adrenaline (aka: stress) to excelling in performance has been well documented - but there's a moment when too much adrenaline causes performance to rapidly decrease, and that's where performance anxiety often sets it. Use of the term 'stress' is actually often misused. 'Stress' is actually where you need to be to perform at your best - when things start going wrong and you feel nervous and like you can't cope, then you've surpassed 'stress' and are now 'distressed'. 
Are you getting 'the rush'... or 'rushing for the door?....'
- My performance anxiety is associated with public speaking and reading aloud. While I was studying for my MA at Leeds College of Music, we were informed that we would have to give two presentations over the course of the year about a topic of our choice. I felt a rock in the pit of my stomach at the mere thought of having to get up and talk, read aloud and present a topic. I can hear many of you now: "But, you're a performer! How could you be afraid to do that?!" - The truth is, speaking-aloud is very different to acting or singing. When I'm on stage as an actor or a singer, I'm not really there as myself, I'm either playing a role, or I'm singing/performing as "Lydia Jane Pugh", my stage persona. Giving a presentation in an academic setting, I'm suddenly just "Lydia", and I'm being judged personally on what I think and feel. After a week of panic, it suddenly hit me - I had no choice in this matter, if I didn't do the presentation, I was going to fail that unit and that would jeopardize my degree - I had to do it. So I came up with the idea of doing a presentation on, 'the fear of presenting'. I made it my mission to research and understand performance anxiety and how it related to me, and find out how to overcome it, presenting my findings as my topic.

I started my research by trying to assess 'why' I have performance anxiety, and 'when' it started. I thought back to being 11, and giving a soap-box presentation in Yr 6 with great ease and success, and then being 13 and struggling to do my English-Speaking-Board in Yr 8, feeling panicky and stressed. Something happened in between those two years of school that caused me to go from a confident public speaker, to a nervous wreck. I remember being bullied at that age, but that was to do with having a parent as a teacher, not for anything about myself that I actually did or for who I was, so I ruled that out. Then, I had a sudden memory of French Class....
- I'm borderline dyslexic: My reading skills are good, but I struggle with spelling and words, and in particular, reading aloud from a page can cause me to stumble a lot over my words, so I have to take my time (I still to this day detest script read-throughs). In Yr 7, I was about to head French class, when I bent down to pick my text book off the floor, only to find it not there - someone had taken it. I went to class and immediately explained this to the teacher, who castigated me for 'losing my book', and then for the rest of the year proceeded to pick on me at every opportunity, making me read aloud 50% of the time, and then yelling at me for pronouncing things wrong etc. It really is a testament to bad teaching, for because of this teacher I developed a fear of reading aloud because I was afraid of getting it wrong and being told off - I also developed a stammer when reading aloud: from already stumbling due to my dyslexia, I now stammered, making it even harder to read aloud. And ever since then I've been filled with dread at the thought of having to speak/read aloud.

So, coming to terms with this, knowing the cause of my anxiety, why and when it started, could I now overcome this as an adult, and if so, how?

1) I prepared: If you're fully prepared for the situation then you're already in a better place to tackle the task at hand. I wrote and re-wrote my presentation several times, practiced it in my kitchen, in the mirror, and tried my best to learn it like a script and have it memorized (where possible)

2) I eliminated unnecessary stress: If you eliminate, or at least greatly minimize the possibility that something could go wrong, then you'll feel better about doing it. Some say removing yourself entirely from the situation is the best option, but I definitely had no choice with my presentations, I couldn't remove myself from them or I'd fail. What I could do was set up the situation to be as comfortable as possible for myself. I decided not to use technology for the first presentation (I later did for the second, but I was more comfortable by then), and go 'old-skool' with a flip-chart and poster-cards. It meant that I had everything in my power, and the computer wasn't going to crash, or there be a power-cut etc. 

3) I looked after myself: I limited my intake of sugar and caffeine, and fluids before the presentation - anything that's going to contribute to an increased heart-rate or worry about having to run for the bathroom or whatever should just be eliminated from your plan of action.

4) Deep Breathing: A few very slow deep breaths before you perform in any situation are sometimes enough to calm you down and centre your mind onto the task at hand. There has been research done recently that suggests that sometime, 'getting-excited' about what you're about to do actually works better, but I find it depends on the situation - for example, if you're performing in a situation where you need to appear calm and level-headed, deep breathing might be best - if you need to burst onto stage with exuberant energy and charisma, a bit of jumping up and down and crazy dancing backstage might benefit you better.

5) I performed: I went in the room and told myself it was just like singing, or acting - this wasn't going to be "Lydia giving a presentation", this was going to be "A presentation from Lydia Jane Pugh" - sometimes getting into that mindset of being 'someone else', even if it's just a bolder version of yourself is a really good way to overcome anxiety. Covering up shyness with bravado is very common, and famous people are renown for it: David Bowie, Adele, Cher, Donny Osmond - ALL performers who've suffered with shyness and performance anxiety.

I managed to get through my presentation, and even just about scraped a merit for it - my lecturer even said they couldn't tell I was nervous, which was an added bonus, I'd clearly done my research and everything I was doing was working. Other things I looked into during my research that may help any of you who's performance anxiety is perhaps more deep-rooted than mine include:
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
  • Counselling
  • Yoga, meditation, exercise in general
  • Visualization Techniques (viewing the situation as good, and the audience as friends etc)
The links below also offer some great advice about performance anxiety and how to deal with it:

Of course, everyone is different, and it's important that you find what works best for you - try things, if they don't work, don't worry, try something else. You might try something that others consider to 'not work' or is a placebo - but who cares? If it's getting you on stage and helping you continue with something that you love, continue to do it! - I should stress however, things like drugs and alcohol really won't help you, and when coupled with anxiety you're just asking for trouble and bigger problems. But, like all 'cures', you can't cover up a problem. All the deep-breathing in the world isn't going to solve anything if the anxiety is rooted deep down inside of you - it's like continually trying to plug a leak without first shutting off the water. My personal advice for everyone, whether you think it's a major or minor problem, is to figure out what the root cause of your anxiety is. This will make is so much easier to fix the issue (and will make your progress to confidence much, much quicker).

Music and performing, in any capacity, should always be fun - when performers talk about the 'rush' of performing, they're talking about that surge of adrenaline that comes before performing. That 'rush' needs to be there to perform well, and if it's not there when you go on stage, then there's something wrong. However, when the 'rush' takes over, the joy of performing gets lost to anxiety. But all is not lost. There are plenty of ways to deal with it, and overcome it.