Terrified of the audience? How to deal with performance anxiety
Freezing in front of an audience is a common phenomenon. No matter how accomplished some people are at what they do, they still find the pressure of performing to be debilitating. But there are actually very effective ways of dealing with this form of anxiety, and some proven techniques to help people perform well under pressure.
When we are learning something new – a musical instrument for example, we go through different stages. At first we are just concentrating hard to develop the physical ability to make recognisable notes on our new instrument. Then with practice, we develop sufficient muscle memory to improve by being able to do what we did previously, only to a better standard.
At this stage, all of our focus is on playing the right chords and the right notes. Then it is is about repeating our actions and achieving a certain level of competence. At this stage, any negative feelings are to do with the frustration of not being able to make the instrument sound how we feel it should sound. But then, when a person moves from competence to genuine expertise, there are whole new challenges, one of which is performance anxiety.
Expertise brings its own anxiety
I have worked with people – accomplished musicians and other highly capable people – who face genuine anxiety at the prospect of having to perform. Although highly competent, the performance situation can cause them to under-perform. Why? Because at this stage, with the audience in front of them, they are not ‘just doing it’ any more. The extra pressure of audience expectation is making them think about what they are doing.
Their anxiety about performing is making them worry about the audience, so they start to think about the notes and the chords that they normally play without being aware of them. In the case of the musician, their concerns about an audience’s reaction makes them too conscious of the mechanics of what they are doing. This in turn affects their ability to make a positive connection with their audience. So what can they do to mitigate this anxiety?
Connect by becoming like liquid
Much of my work with this kind of anxiety is about how performers perceive themselves. In the case of the musician, it is about seeing the instrument as being a natural part of themselves, with notes flowing like liquid and the fingers moving easily and seemingly without effort. This frees the performer to connect and engage emotionally with an audience. It is interesting to observe that even some high profile, world-famous musicians don’t deal with this anxiety well. They detach themselves from the audience and stay in their own little stage bubble.
An audience hardly notices an off note, but they’ll invariably know when a performer is disconnected from them in some way. Technical perfection may be present, but that major thing is missing – genuine passion or magic. This is why some musicians deal with performance anxiety by surrounding themselves with a band. While they may be technically brilliant, they are never fully engaging with their audience, and the audience picks it up straightaway. And the same is true of many other fields, too, especially sport. Truly great performers on the other hand, make what they do seem effortless and this is how they are able to reach and relate to those for whom they are performing.
When I work with sportspeople, I will enable them, in hypnosis, to visualise a game, imagining their body like flowing liquid. When they are able to relax in performance, there a much smaller chance of injury because they are in a state of heightened awareness – conscious of all that is happening around them. When the footballer kicks a ball whilst in this relaxed state, everything becomes easier. If they allow sledging or booing to break this focus, players become tense, and therefore much more liable to make mistakes.
This approach works very well for people who have are nervous or anxious about having to give a presentation. I advise people to visualise their forthcoming performance by walking into the room, making themselves comfortable and focusing on the people in the room. They need to remember that audience members actually want to listen and they are prepared to meet the presenter half way in making that emotional connection. Another technique is to become your favourite actor and picture how you would look or how you would stand.
Anybody who really cares about what they do can get anxious. This is normal and these emotions are there for a reason. The important thing is how we deal with these to ensure we perform as we need to. Fears about sexual performance are another very real anxiety but this must be the subject of a separate post.
Till then, I wish you continued happiness – and enjoy what we have left of the summer!