Audition and performance anxiety is an evolutionary throwback — one that can be directly tied to our more primal neurological heritage; it’s called fight or flight. This fear that is elicited by stage fright ignites the body’s fight-or-flight response, which is what brings about its various physical and physiological manifestations. Essentially, it’s the perceived sense of danger that sets off kinds of internal bells and whistles in preparation for something that arguably never happens. This kind of response is completely disproportionate, and can be seen as a kind of false alarm. And needless to say, the physical and psychological experience of all this, is extremely unpleasant. Experiencing audition and performance anxiety, it’s fair to say, is not fun.
Many very famous artists like Pavarotti, Barbara Streisand and Rene Fleming and even great athletes suffer from performance anxiety. For those that have audition or performance anxiety, it can be worse than most common fears like flying, forgetting your music, loosing luggage, losing your phone, etc. It’s possible to even become physically ill before you actually audition or perform. This complex fear extends beyond the pressure to perform in the moment. It’s the vulnerability of exposing oneself to be judged by a panel of adjudicators or an audience, that sets off an entire cascade of physiological processes when you simply think about it, that include dry mouth, butterflies in the stomach, a pounding heart, shaking, sweaty hands, throwing up and diarrhea.
Those of you who are at the effect of this condition often start to experience its effects days or weeks in advance. Psychologists, who work with patients on this condition, describe how your inner chatter tends to focus on those things that could go wrong during the performance and in the immediate aftermath of a potential failure, which allows your imagination to build a solid story about how, when and why things will go wrong. It’s the lead-up to an audition or performance that get’s your mind off track. Your thoughts become irrational and absurd, and most times you know it but can’t seem to stop them. These are exaggerated fears taken completely out of context.
And in fact, studies have shown that this exaggerated anxiety and fear of failure in an audition or performance can be driven by any number of traits. See if you find one that fits: want everyone to like and admire you, what to be a star in their eyes, desire control, fear of failure and success, and an intense anxiety about not being able to perform properly when the time comes (which can if you’re not careful, serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy).
During an audition or performance you may be trying to second guess or “mind read” what those listening are scrutinizing. Consequently, you turn your focus onto yourself and interpret the audience’s attention as a perceived threat. And once the fear sets in, that’s when you begin a downward spiral during which you’re perpetually on the lookout for anything that would reinforce your fears. You start to think pessimistic thoughts and presume that others are naturally critical and that a negative evaluation is likely, when in reality, your mind should be focused on doing your JOB. And your job is to tell your characters story through the sound of your voice and acting skills, while you take your audience on a magical journey! That’s what they paid for and desperately want. They want you to use your skills and tools, to take them away from their everyday life.
What is the best way to get a handle on this? First of all, you have to want to get out of this emotional rut. You have to want to create new habits that need to be reinforced every day to become the “go to” response. Finding the right method for you to get a handle on this will include some trial and error and lots of research. I find that most times it’s the “Brat”, you know that internal voice that talks you in a not so nice way at the most inappropriate times. I have a method to deal with this “Brat” in my book Aria Ready, The Business of Singing. Or you might want to consider a therapist, who can perhaps help you tackle the psychological and emotional underpinnings of your anxiety; things that might include learning to recognize irrational and unfounded beliefs, help with your ability to stop revisiting a recent negative experience, which can trigger the fear. You can also learn how not to obsess over the fear of negative consequences. Simply talking it out with a therapist has also been shown to be effective. There is also hypnosis, meditation and visualization, which are all very effective.
So… with all this said, let’s concede a couple of things. First, those who have this anxiety shouldn’t feel that they have to get over it. Sometimes it’s just simply not worth it. But for every one of you with audition and performance anxiety who wants to move on and have it under control, you need to consider just how important it is for you to deal with the effects of this crippling, emotional ride. You have to decide just how much you want to perform, do it well and be able to enjoy it. Performing as a professional is not for the faint of heart. It’s a job with all the ups and downs just like any other. It’s not glamorous but if you have the talent, and want to get involved, then do it! Avanti! Ciao, Carol