The purpose of this blog entry is to gain further perspective into the automated psychological responses of pre-anticipatory anxiety and performance. Many performers experience a derogatory inner voice which may include “what if”statements such as, what if I make a mistake, what would others think?’ Other inner thoughts may include, “I am not good enough, I can’t this, etc..” Understanding how these thoughts can cause psychological stress will be clarified in this blog entry in relation to neurochemical and physical responses. With understanding, awareness and clarity, it is possible to overcome and effectively manage stress and pre-anticipatory anxiety related to performance.
Here are a few basic examples of a psychological response. If you have ever almost been in a car accident and experience your body become tense, rapid heart rate, sweating, even dizziness. This response is involuntary and occurs because the brain perceives you are in imminent danger. Another example is if you have experienced fear while watching a horror movie. Although you are not in actual danger during the horror movie, the body and brain perceives fear the same. The primitive response part of the brain cannot tell the difference between actual reality and perceived reality and therefore cannot determine if you are in actual danger or perceived danger. The same psychological response may occur (rapid heart rate, sweating, tense muscles). This is directly related to performance and here’s why. An upcoming performance can induce fear by thinking false beliefs which include fear of making a mistake, being ridiculed by others, or being exposed as a fraud. This can lead to a physical and psychological response. Your body and brain cannot tell the difference between actual danger and perceived danger, therefore an automatic psychological response may occur.
Neurotransmitter, Endocrine, and Adrenal responses
The physical and neurochemical response includes an over activation of a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is responsible for 3 major functions which are designed to protect our bodies and keep us alive. These include raising blood pressure, increasing blood sugar or raising glucose levels, slowing down our immune system and increasing inflammation. The production is a natural reaction for the purpose of providing more energy dedicated to surviving. Cortisol influences sleep, circulation, heart rate, digestion, glucose levels, behavior and mood, digestion and many more functions. Cortisol is released by the outer cortex (outer layer) of the adrenal glands which are triangle shaped endocrine glands on top of each kidney. When the adrenal glands respond naturally (not in a state of stress) the adrenal glands would produce increased levels of cortisol in the morning to help us wake up and decreasing cortisol levels throughout the day. When reacting to stress, the cortisol level would increase as long as stress is prevalent. This primal system is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and this is how it works. When stress is experienced, the hypothalamus gland in the brain tells the pituitary gland, also in the brain, that danger is present. The pituitary gland sends hormones (called ACTH) to the endocrine glands (on top of the kidneys)
And tells the see each glands to start making cortisol. This happens automatically before we’re are aware of it! This alerts us that we may be in danger and we may need to either run (Flight), fight, or play dead (Faint). This experience is necessary if your being attached, but not helpful at all if you’re trying to perform and stay relaxed.
Additional tools to manage performance anxiety
How to do we manage this stress and what can we do about it? The answer is to practice being in a stressful performance situation. Try to find a stage and simulate the conditions of an actual performance. When doctors learn to operate, they first practice of with cadavers rather than on a live person. Acknowledge your fears increased heart rate and any sensations you have related to the simulated performance. Do not resist feeling afraid, just acknowledge it. After you practice the simulated performance, record your responses, thoughts, feelings and fears. Ask yourself if these fears and responses are valid. Write down how you would like to feel and do differently. Repeat this several times and continue to record your results by writing them down. The act of writing helps the brain further make sense and process your anxiety.
When you practice in a controlled environment which eventually will feel normal and safe. You will most likely experience something different during the actual performance. These differences are called confounding variables. During an actual performance you may be bombarded with questions, here comments like “ Don't mess up”, or the room may be freezing cold. Try to create adverse conditions during your simulated practice so that your anxiety would be decreased during the actual performance. While in a state of anxiety it is important to practice deep breathing. Breath in for 5 counts and release the air in steady stream for 7 seconds.
Disclaimer: This is blog entry is not for the purpose of diagnosis or treatment of a medical condition. Please consult your physician if you experience a more serious condition or symptoms including high blood pressure, persistent headaches or difficulty breathing.
Trumpet player, Licensed clinical psychotherapist.