Do you already have the ability to overcome performance anxiety?

By Mike Cunningham  -  25 August 2015

There are two aspects of performance anxiety which people are usually aware of.

Firstly, the feeling of anxiety itself - an unpleasant feeling that they don't seem to be able to control. If they're in an anxious state it's practically impossible to play the way they want to.

This seems to be caused by the second aspect - that the people listening are going to judge whether they are any good or not. Obviously, this is not directly within their control either as other people can form whatever opinions they want.

Once they've had a number of experiences of anxious performances they tend to form the expectation that it will happen again. But performance anxiety actually works quite differently from how it first appears.

It starts with someone questioning whether they are good enough. It seems somewhat strange that many highly skilled people still doubt their ability. This doesn't only happen in the field of music, but in acting, sport and other areas too.

There's a reason why this happens. As someone is going through the process of developing their skills, the more they practise the more automatic everything becomes. Once their skills are happening automatically, it gives them the impression that they're not really doing anything.

People tend to take their skills for granted. The only way they became so skilled in the first place is by noticing increasingly finer details that they can improve upon. 

The result is they're no longer noticing and appreciating the skills they're already demonstrating successfully and are very aware of areas that don't yet meet their high standards. This is what gives them the impression that they're not that skilled.

If you've ever read autobiographies of famous musicians, actors, comedians or sportspeople it's often surprising to find that even people who are world-class in their field have doubted their ability from time to time.

We also have the tendency to think that other people will see us the way we see ourselves. So, if someone doubts whether they're skilled or not, they're more likely to expect other people to have the same sense of doubt about them that they do. Then if they're preparing for an important performance, one of the main things they're going to be focusing on is whether the others will think they're good or not.

As they go through the performance in their mind trying to work out what people will think of them they get the feeling we describe as 'anxiety'. This happens because, intuitively, they know that no matter how many times they go over it in their minds they're not in direct control of what other people think. As they go over and over the performance in this way, they have the impression that they're just trying to work out what those listening to them will think.

Actually, they're doing something very different. They're actually starting to associate a feeling of anxiety with seeing the people there, whether this is the audience, audition panel or fellow musicians whose opinions they value.

When they walk into the performance the sight of the people triggers back the feeling of anxiety because that is what they've unintentionally trained themselves to do. This is what leads someone to say that it's the particular performance situation that makes them anxious. In that state they don't perform well, so neither themselves nor the people listening are likely to think it's good because they're not in a state to perform they way they could when they were actually enjoying playing.

That seems to confirm to them that they accurately predicted how the performance would be beforehand, and as other people made them anxious, it was totally outside of their control. This in turn strengthens their belief that they know how similar situations will be in future. In reality, they unintentionally trained themselves to go into that state in the performance upon seeing the people.

As mentioned earlier, once someone has practised something over and over it starts to happen automatically - it becomes habit. This also happens if someone trains themselves to link a feeling of anxiety to playing and performing in the presence of other people. It starts to happen automatically and this deepens their belief that anxiety is happening to them, apparently quite randomly.

People who've been doing this for a while often say that they don't believe that any form of mind training will make any difference whatsoever.

The fact is, it already has.

People who experience performance anxiety are extremely good at training themselves to go into a particular state during performance. It just so happens that they've been training themselves to go into a state of anxiety rather than the state of flow people create which makes it easier for them to enjoy playing successfully. The first part of the process of overcoming performance anxiety is to change the automatic trigger, so that the sight of people doesn't automatically trigger a state of anxiety in someone.

Ironically, if you consider the experiences where people are really impressed with your playing it's usually when you're totally immersed in the music as you're performing so that everything flows more naturally and easily. The next step is to use the ability they already have to train themselves to go into a state of flow during performance.

Once they've achieved this in situations which had previously been challenging, this strengthens their belief that they're able to enjoy performing naturally and easily again. They've then created a new expectation.

And that's why you already have the ability to overcome performance anxiety.

 © Mike Cunningham 2015 

Come and visit Mike's FaceBook page or his website  or book a one to one session with him to overcome your own performance anxiety here

About Mike Cunningham

Mike works with top performers in sport, entertainment & business to enable them to develop their mind-set to perform at their best and handle pressure and challenges with greater confidence.

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