Bill Harrison is a psychotherapist whose primary interest is working with people in the performing arts. He is also an accomplished musician and an occasional actor. You can find him at billharrisontherapy.com
Photo: The legendary Laurence Olivier was hit with an intense bout of stage fright that emerged later in his career. He once had his manager push him onstage while performing at London’s National Theatre.
INNER MISSION: REFLECTIONS ON CREATING A LIFE IN THE PERFORMING ARTS Psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison’s column on life as an artist.
“Feel your fear and do it anyway.” “What’s the worst that can happen?” “Picture the audience naked.” “Fake it ’til you make it.” We’ve all heard these bromides many times. There’s a grain of helpful truth in each of them, but somehow responding to an artist’s real anxiety with a cliché can feel dismissive and be downright harmful. Performance anxiety is a serious, potentially career-threatening issue that deserves a personal, nuanced response. So let’s take a closer look at some of the ways to manage stage fright. As we discussed last time, stage fright is an emotional and physiological response to a situation in which you are allowing yourself to be seen—and (as a result) evaluated—by other people. A certain amount of nervousness is normal (and probably necessary), but when your system gets overwhelmed by the fear of being negatively judged, embarrassed or rejected it can significantly reduce your ability to perform at your best. It’s important to realize that anxiety is not “all in your head” (i.e., not just psychological). This means that you can’t just think your way out of it. Your entire self (body, mind and spirit) is involved. I believe it’s important to have a multi-dimensional way to understand what happens when you get overwhelmed in order to create an integrative solution that works specifically for you. My performance anxiety treatment model uses three basic goals: acceptance, preparation, and confidence. Each of these areas must be addressed through the entire self, but it helps to simplify matters by visualizing the ‘self’ in three parts: your brain, your body, and your psyche. In truth, there is no real division between these parts. But acting as if these divisions exist will make it easier to talk about ways to manage your stage fright. The descriptions that follow will be highly over-simplified out of necessity.
Woody Allen’s second favorite organ is a kind of neural switchboard. It receives and broadcasts chemical and electrical signals to and from all areas of the body. It also acts as the receptor/mediator between you and the rest of the world. The brain is physically divided into three chunks, from oldest to newest part: the hindbrain (cerebellum), midbrain (limbic) and forebrain (cerebrum). Both the cerebrum (or neocortex) and cerebellum are divided into two hemispheres, left and right. The left brain is thought to be the neurological home of rational thought and language; it’s the takin’ care of business hemisphere. The right brain is more responsible for sensory processing, imagery and the non-rational. It’s probably where ‘the artist’ in you draws much of its neurological power. An excellent primer on brain structure may be found here: http://nbia.ca/brain-structure-function/
This is an obvious one, right? Your body is the conduit through which you experience the world and take action. In a way, your senses and physicality seem to be the most ‘real’ parts of who you are. The body feels like your first responder, because, even though we know the brain is ultimately in charge of all inputs and outputs, the body often responds so quickly that its reactions seem unfiltered. In reality, all of the ‘automatic’ ways the body responds is the sly work of the cerebellum (especially the brain stem and medulla) and the midbrain (mainly the limbic system). But, of course, the brain is a part of the body too.
You can call it the soul or the spirit or the mind; what we’re talking about is the inner you, the part that reflects, remembers, and anticipates. Your psyche is what you experience as the disembodied essence of who you think and feel you are. In this country, we are acculturated to believe that the psyche is located inside our heads. But the truth is that the mind has no physical location. Scientists, philosophers, and theologians have been trying to understand the nature of the spirit/psyche/mind for a very long time. If you’ve figured it out, please drop me an email. Now that you’re thoroughly steeped in neurobiology, let’s take a look at the treatment model I mentioned earlier.
One of the biggest mistakes performers make is to try to trick themselves into not being anxious about an audition or a show. Stage fright doesn’t originate in the conscious mind and it can’t be ‘turned off’ just by thinking positive thoughts or trying to talk yourself out of it. You have to learn how to work with your anxiety. The more you try to resist it or pretend it’s not there, the more likely it will get in your way. Carl Jung wisely wrote, “What we resist, persists.” Or, if you prefer the wisdom of the Borg, “Resistance is futile.” I would go so far as to say that you need to make friends with your performance anxiety. When you’re able to embrace your fears they will begin to lose their ability to overwhelm you. When performance anxiety kicks in, the brain secretes the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These are the chemicals that initiate the well-known “fight or flight” responses. The release of these hormones causes various physical reactions, including increased heart rate and blood pressure, fast and shallow breathing, sweating, and increased muscle tension. That’s great if you’re in the jungle being chased by a saber-toothed tiger, but not so helpful if you’re trying to get through your monologue, dance routine or concerto. There’s another effect that’s less known but equally crucial to understand: when the stress hormones are released, the hindbrain takes over primary control and ‘short circuits’ the frontal cortex. In plain English, this means that you lose your ability to think clearly because the part of your brain that’s responsible for rational thought is essentially knocked offline when the anxiety hijacks your brain and body. The lesson here is that you have to accept the fact that you will be anxious in certain performance situations and that the best way to handle it is to learn how to channel all that primal energy into your art.
Of course you have to know your material – the words, the blocking, the choreography, the notes and rhythms. But when it comes to managing performance anxiety, not all forms of practice are equally effective. Remember the left brain / right brain split from a few paragraphs ago? A lot of practice and rehearsal tends to focus on left brain activity, such as rote memorization of words or steps, understanding and overcoming technical problems and repetition. All of these activities require a sharp, conscious focus on planning, analytical thinking, details and critical assessment (by yourself, your teacher, coach, director, etc.). Conversely, the right brain is the seat of creativity, inspiration, emotions and imagery – all the things that move performances from the mundane to the inspired. As artists, we need both hemispheres to work in tandem. Unfortunately, when stage fright strikes and we’re not properly prepared to handle it, the emotional energy is there (often in the form of fear), but our ability to focus on what we’ve practiced goes out the window as soon as the frontal cortex flips out. We lose the ability to control our breathing, and the body suddenly seems to have a mind of its own. So there’s got to be more to preparation than rehearsing what I call the contents of the performance. We also need to do our preparation for the context of a performance. Some of this will be old hat for you. You have to prepare your body by maintaining your physical fitness, stamina, and flexibility. You also need to practice some stress management techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, body scanning, yoga or tai chi. You can’t just do some deep breathing right before a stressful event and expect to be able to manage the effects of adrenaline coursing through your system. These techniques have to become as natural as, well, breathing. Limiting your intake of caffeine, alcohol, and refined sugar is helpful too. Preparing your mind is equally important. Various forms of meditation, guided visualization, listening to music and laughter are all good ways to decrease stress and increase you ability to stay grounded in the present. But what do I mean by preparing for the context? When you’re in the rehearsal hall or practice room, you’re generally taken up with the mechanics or content of whatever you’re trying to learn. As noted above, this is largely a left brain activity. To truly prepare for the context of a performance you must also find ways to, as they say, raise the stakes – even if you’re alone in a studio. You want to call upon the resources of the right brain to simulate the performance experience as much as you can. You can do this in two ways: First, when you feel that you’ve mastered the mechanics of the piece you’re practicing, do it full bore, as if it was a real performance. Don’t mark, don’t hold back – go for it! If you want to put yourself on the spot, use this second idea: video or audio record your performance. It’s amazing what kind of pressure that will produce even if you know you’re the only person who will ever see or hear the recording. Preparing both the content and the context will help you channel the hormone-induced energy that will arise during a real audition or performance.
Confidence is the feeling of self-assurance that comes from your appreciation of your own abilities and qualities. It is the result of your conscious, steadfast practice of acceptance and preparation. It is a deep inner knowing that can reduce your emotional and physical responses to the situations that cause performance anxiety. Confidence is not just an idea; it is a state of being that permeates your whole self–body, mind, and spirit. Confidence is also the prerequisite for resilience, a quality every performer needs to have. Why? Because there are times when you will fail. You will blow that audition; you will forget a line or a lyric; you will lose your balance; you will muff a musical passage. It’s not a question of if you will fail, but when. This will happen because you’re human and no earthly being can perform perfectly all the time. But when you’ve developed your confidence, you will know, with great assurance, that you will bounce back and get ‘em next time.
Acceptance, preparation, and confidence make up the three-part antidote to stage fright. Will developing these practices guarantee that you will never experience performance anxiety again? Sadly, no. Human beings are complicated creatures. Just as you will never be able to perform perfectly, you will not be able to eliminate your anxiety completely. What we’re talking about is managing your stage fright. How did you get so good at dancing (singing, acting, playing the accordion)? You learned and practiced the techniques of your art over a long period of time. The same strategy will work for keeping your anxiety in check. Managing your stage fright will allow you to access your most important tool as an artist—your vulnerability. In a previous piece, I said that to be vulnerable means to be “open to being wounded”. When you have your anxiety under control, taking the risk of being seen begins to feel safe. You become more able to fully engage with the material and with your performance partners. Your mind, body and soul become the resources you use to communicate with your audience. And, ultimately, isn’t that why you chose to become an artist in the first place?