A lot of people offer advice on how to deal with anxiety before a big show, where you find yourself on a stage in front of thousands of people. However, that's not where anxiety ends. Nervousness can creep in at any time, and in the most inconvenient of times. I want to help musicians conquer their fears while meeting fans on tour, talking with major label representatives, and even during intimate in-studio performances in front of an A-list producer.
Meditate for one minute
It's been my experience that closing your eyes for a one-minute meditation session can transform just about any tense situation into a manageable event. If you have musician's earplugs, use them to block out external noise and focus on deep breathing, slowly counting to three with every inhale/exhale. Once you feel yourself relaxing, mentally scan all of the muscles in your body, taking note of any tightness or twitching, and work to eliminate it. One of the most detrimental consequences of performance stress is muscle tension, which can severely inhibit musical performances, so this quick meditation can make all the difference.
Recognize the warning signs
Noticing the signs of when an anxiety attack starts is key so you can tackle it before the incident worsens. Symptoms include increased heart rate, feelings of helplessness, chest tightness, trembling or shaking, sweaty palms, and changes in perceived body temperature (e.g., hot flashes or chills). A lot of artists tend to view these warning signs as a natural part of the process and try to fight through them without taking a break. While this might work for some, it's much easier to discontinue whatever it is that you're doing, take a few minutes to isolate that tension, and relieve it.
Try using cue words
Musicians have a tendency to focus on self-critique and analyze every detail of their performances. While this can be beneficial when practicing, the performing mindset has to be clear of negativity. If you're in the middle of a performance that can't be interrupted, you must learn to redirect and channel your nervous energy into art.
I encourage you to experiment with cue words. Cue words are useful devices that enable you to instantaneously call up neurological responses that you might forget about while onstage. While you're practicing, think of words or short phrases that elicit effortless executions of difficult passages like "fluid," "light," or "smooth." While you may not realize it, if you practice implementing these mental cues during rehearsal when you're in the heat of the moment, they can actually cue your brain into responding with muscle memory and relieve tension on the spot.
Know that you're not alone in struggling with this process. Beyoncé even admitted, "I think it's healthy for a person to be nervous. It means you care – that you work hard and want to give a great performance. You just have to channel that nervous energy into the show."
Trick your brain by smiling
Lastly, try and smile more. It can actually trick your brain into releasing serotonin, which can relieve stress and make you feel more at ease. If you're in a tense situation and feel the onset of an anxiety attack, think of reasons to smile because, after all, you're pursuing your dream career. Fake it 'til you make it! If you appear to be in control of a situation, happy, and comfortable – chances are, people will trust you, giving you the confidence to achieve whatever your goal is at that moment.
The science behind it all
What's happening in your brain?
Anxiety is the complex sum of several cognitive appraisal processes that work to balance perception with demand. Your brain basically tries to calculate the odds of success while determining the potential for failure. This internal battle is really a fight between your brain's left and right hemispheres. The left brain's evaluation of logic, facts, and analysis is competing with the right brain's creative, imaginative, feeling-based motor skills. This is why you see sports teams rally with highly energetic and positive self speak. At risk of oversimplifying, what coaches are doing is stimulating their players' right hemispheres, quieting the sometimes overly critical left brain.
Don't be afraid to be your own motivational coach, constantly repeating phrases like, "I've got this," or "I'm ready." If you're well-prepared, this will undoubtedly help convince your right brain to take over and allow you to deliver every time without being hindered by overanalyzing.
Can a quick cardio workout reduce performance anxiety?
Ever had a post-workout high? It's no coincidence. After a brief workout, the body requires extra oxygen to create more ATP for muscle recovery. More oxygen means less cortisone, which means less stress, more focus, and calmer nerves.
Regular cardio does wonders for musicians – especially wind/horn players and vocalists. The maximum capacity of oxygen the body is capable of using is called VO2 max, so essentially, the higher the VO2 max, the more fit a person is. Working towards increasing your endurance on the treadmill can actually allow you to breathe more efficiently and have stronger lung muscles for hefty breath support. Going for a quick, 20-minute run an hour or so before a big event, meetup, or performance can work amazingly well in reducing the potential for the onset of an anxiety attack.
Which foods help to reduce stress?
I’ll leave you with a list of foods that are proven to help reduce stress and stimulate healthy brain activity. Next time you're headed to that terrifying meeting or big performance, grab one of these snacks beforehand and own it!
- Green, leafy vegetables: Spinach contains folate, which produces dopamine, a pleasure-inducing brain chemical, says Heather Mangieri, RDN.
- Dark chocolate: The antioxidants in cocoa trigger the walls of your blood vessels to relax, lowering blood pressure and improving circulation. Additionally, these antioxidants can reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone primarily responsible for anxiety attacks.
- Turkey breast: Tryptophan, an amino acid, helps produce serotonin, which regulates hunger and increases happiness.
- Whole grain oatmeal: Oats have complex carbohydrates that can stimulate serotonin production without spiking blood glucose levels, preventing insulin surges, which only enhances feelings of anxiousness.
- Yogurt: A 2013 UCLA study confirmed that the probiotics in yogurt can reduce brain activity in areas that handle strong emotions such as stress, especially in women. Just watch out for excessive added sugars.
- Salmon: Omega-3 fatty acids in salmon have anti-inflammatory properties that may help counteract the negative effects of stress hormones, says Lisa Cimperman, RD, of the University Hospital's Case Medical Center.
- Blueberries: "The antioxidants and phytonutrients found in berries fight in your defense, helping improve your body's response to stress and stress-related free radicals," says Health.com.
- Bananas: Naturally high in potassium, they help to lower blood pressure, as well as boast the same tryptophan turkey contains, helping to improve memory, concentration, and overall mood.
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- 5 Strategies to Overcome Stage Fright
Caleb Hsu is an independent vocal producer and freelance recording engineer based in Los Angeles. As a classically trained pianist and composer, he enjoys writing music technology features that combine his psychology background with current industry trends.