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Performance Anxiety- Where does it come from?

So far in our little exploration of Performance Anxiety, we’ve discovered exactly what it means and how it can feel. This week we’re going to shrug on our lab coats and get a little scientific as we look at the psychological and biological causes of Performance Anxiety- and they said I’d never use that A level in Psychology!

If you missed last week’s post- click here to read

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Performance Anxiety only affects musicians and performers. It’s incredibly common and can be experienced in a wide range of scenarios. The reason is the fact that Performance Anxiety is caused by a bunch of chemicals that everybody has. You could be a brass player, an actor, a footballer or a chess champion, it doesn’t matter. We all have the chemicals and biological facilities to experience performance anxiety- aren’t we lucky?!

The symptoms we experience when we’re suffering from Performance Anxiety are the result of a response system called ‘Fight or Flight’, which is our body’s way of getting us away from a potentially threatening situation. To put it simply, our nervous system acts like an alarm. Acute stress (such as fear when waiting to perform) causes a chemical change. The nervous system treats this as a response to a threat and therefore fires off Fight or Flight to help us either fight or escape this perceived threat. Chemicals such as adrenaline are released and certain bodily functions are changed to put us in the best position for survival. Our heart rate increases and our breathing becomes shorter to prepare us for combat or escape. Blood rushes to our muscles and they tense to aid a quick response to the threat.

All this is pretty useful if you’re walking down a dark alley and a dodgy-looking fella starts running towards you…not so useful when you’re sat on stage about to begin a performance of Resurgam. Unfortunately there is a slight flaw in this system. The response is released whenever your nervous system picks up on a fearful response from you…which isn’t something we can always control. The response doesn’t discriminate whether the threat is an actual threat (like a dodgy fella in a dark alley) or is perfectly safe, but it just makes us a bit apprehensive (like performing). If your body detects stress it will fire the response, regardless of what the perceived threat is, which causes the symptoms we associate with performance anxiety.

Racing hearts and rapid breathing can affect us psychologically, as we tend to associate this with panicking, which doesn’t help our mental state before we play and can also make playing, physically, difficult. Tension in our muscles can cause trembling and tense stomach muscles can cause nausea and pressure on our bladders (which may explain why you may need to visit the bathroom a little more often than normal on the day of a performance). Our physical symptoms can make it hard for us to focus and may heighten anxious thoughts and inhibit concentration.

Everybody has a nervous system and therefore can experience the ‘Fight or Flight’ response, so how come some people are more nervous on stage than others?

We’re all different. Remember it’s the appearance of acute stress that fires off the response. Some people aren’t phased by performing therefore feel very little to no stress (yes, this type of person infuriates me too- it just isn’t fair). Without this stress, the body doesn’t think it’s in danger, therefore won’t set off the response. Other people are more susceptible to stress when having to perform and therefore the body will set off the response when it detects this stress. This susceptibility can be caused by a range of factors such as genetics and your past experiences.

Our environment can also trigger performance anxiety. Being in a stressful environment, whether that’s the stage, having a stressful time at home/work or in the rehearsal room, can all contribute to performance anxiety. If there is a lot of criticism in the band room this can obviously cause nerves, as we may be afraid of being judged. If we are regularly subjected to negativity or criticism this can increase our likelihood of being nervous in front of an audience, as this fear of being judged becomes a learned response to performing in front of other people.

Our past experiences can also trigger Performance Anxiety. You may have had a negative or embarrassing experience whilst performing and therefore are afraid of a repeat of this experience. This is called association. A past performance may not have gone as well as hoped or you may have suffered with unpleasant symptoms associated with performance anxiety. We therefore associate performing with feeling nervous and view it as something negative, as it makes us feel uncomfortable. We then get into the vicious circle of thinking performing is bad, which makes us feel nervous and more likely to make a mistake, and the mistakes we make reinforce that performing is negative, which makes us feel nervous….and so on and so on.

I think my performance anxiety stemmed from being overly critical of myself and I hated the way I felt if I didn’t perform as well as I knew I could (regardless of any positive comments I received from other people about my playing). This led to me associating playing with feeling rubbish about myself and no performance ever being good enough, so I would put ridiculous amounts of pressure on myself before even stepping in front of the audience. This resulted in me eventually falling out of love with playing, even just in the house, away from other people. If you struggle with Performance Anxiety, don’t let it get to that point before you do something about it.

Ultimately, performance anxiety is a chemical reaction that is triggered in response to stress. We can suffer with it for a variety of reasons but there is also a variety of ways to cope with it and stop it from affecting our performance.

In the penultimate post of this series, we’ll look at how we can deal with performance anxiety by looking at the way we view performing, dealing with our past experiences, limiting the effects of our environment and physically looking after ourselves before performing.

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