Feeling nervous in front of a crowd is a universal human experience. However, when performance anxiety is severe, it can impact the quality of the performance itself. It can even meet criteria for a clinical diagnosis, being a sub-type of social anxiety disorder. This can be particularly distressing for professional musicians (and athletes) with skills honed over many years, who deeply identify with their profession.
The Yerkes-Dodson law outlines that some nervousness is actually optimal for performance, however research on performance anxiety amongst professional musicians has identified that the performance anxiety is most severe in solo performance situations and auditions. And while musicians are using practice techniques, relaxation, positive self-talk, and faux performances to reduce the impact of anxiety on performance quality, musicians are also using medication (prescribed and off label), alcohol, and psychotherapy at much higher rates than the general population (Fishbein et al, 1988).
Strategies to reduce performance anxiety
The good news is that there are strategies that actually reduce performance anxiety, with combinations of the following approaches shown to be the most effective:
- Adjusting inaccurate and unhelpful thoughts (cognitive restructuring) about performing that keep generating arousal and fear. For example, the thought ‘this must be my best or I’m going to be so disappointed’ could be adjusted to ‘I’ve worked really hard and will focus on enjoying my progress during the performance and afterwards’.
- Creating regular performance conditions to normalise and tolerate anxiety (exposure therapy)
- Mindfulness strategies to return to the present moment when fear about the future or past-oriented memories increase anxiety
- Noticing and accepting the presence of fear as a normal human emotion (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy)
Sometimes for performers there can be deeper issues, such as unrelenting standards (perfectionism), an unhelpful fusion of self-worth with performance quality, or painful memories of being accepted for performance abilities and rejected for mistakes. When performing triggers these kinds of issues, problematic coping (eg avoid, detach or numb) can protect the performer from emotional pain, yet also block access to underlying needs. An example of this is the musician who practices excessively due to feeling he is only as good as his last performance, develops a habit of drinking to dull a sense of failure, and never experiences the healing that comes when deeper emotional needs for love and acceptance outside of achievement are met.
If this is you, a psychologist can help you make these meaningful changes – many of us have these issues too!
A healthy mindset
Shifting the focus from a ‘perfect performance’ to one of joy, artistry, and individual expression is a gentle and healthy mindset. One that celebrates a unique and whole individual, deserving of joy, meaning, and satisfaction.